McQuiston: The Cost Of Democracy

Nov 9, 2016

If you live in Vermont, it might feel like New Hampshire senatorial candidates Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan have spent more time in your family room lately than your own family, given the relentless TV ads they’ve run. More than $30 million will have been spent to employ one, single person.

There’s so much money available for political campaigns now, that barnstorming other states and even southern Quebec in an effort to reach a slice of Granite State voters in the Upper Valley is considered money well spent. Or at least campaign managers don’t want to take the chance that it ISN’T money well spent.

But one thing it surely is - is bad for the economy.

Dealer.com, the Burlington-based web developer for car dealers, released a study last week that found that car shopping and car sales were both down in battleground states. The math is easy to understand. The political ads muscled many car ads out of the way. And car shopping is very heavily ad driven, especially on the broadcast side.

In Vermont, the gubernatorial race when fully added up might be the most expensive race in state history, surpassing the 2006 race between Bernie Sanders and Rich Tarrant of $13.7 million. The difference then was that Tarrant largely self-funded his effort to win the US Senate seat.

Today, because of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, there’s almost no limit to outside spending by political action committees.

These ads can be brutal and even pleas by local candidates to stop them usually fall on deaf ears, because of what a victory, or loss, in a local race might mean to a national agenda.

And unfortunately, nearly all that money is wasted, from an economic development perspective. The money lost is capital that’s unavailable for any other purpose. Political spending doesn’t recirculate to any great degree, as does, say, the purchase of a car, or a house, or investment in a business, or education, or just about anything else.

The stakes are high, of course, which just feeds the system, and in the process burns through tens of millions of dollars, even here in Vermont.

A new US Supreme Court, which we will get, could overturn Citizens United, but that now seems very unlikely – leaving me to wonder which New Hampshire politician will be back in my Vermont family room six years from now.