James Carville, the political consultant, once said, “Good campaigns focus relentlessly on the two M’s: money and message. And money comes first, because without it you can’t get across your message.”
It’s customary – in fact, it seems mandatory – to denounce money in politics as evil. And money can be the root of political evils like bribery, corruption and improper influence.
Yet, money also enables a candidate or a cause to get information to voters. To educate them so they can make wise decisions. To inform them about the choices before them.
That includes information about a candidate’s background, public record and stands on issues. Or an opponent’s lack of honesty, questionable past or dangerous ideas.
Right now, in North Carolina, we’re seeing the importance of money and message. We see it in the Presidential race and in the Democratic U.S. Senate race. We see it because we’re seeing the ads.
We see ads from Mike Bloomberg about himself and President Trump. Bloomberg’s ads tell us that he supports gun safety laws, action against climate change and protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. The ads tell us that Trump opposes all of those.
In the Senate race, we see ads from Cal Cunningham and from VoteVets, a super-PAC supporting him. The ads say Cunningham is a veteran who won a Bronze Star, was a progressive legislator and will fight corruption in Washington.
Last week, we began seeing ads, reportedly from a Republican group, boosting state Senator Erica Smith in the Democratic primary.
Now, we know that ads on TV and Facebook may or may not be true. But my experience is that voters are pretty good at sorting out what to believe – or, at least, what they’re going to believe. After all, we have thousands of hours’ experience in our lives watching television and deciding what and who to believe. And if something sounds fake, you could look it up.
The Bloomberg and Cunningham campaigns raise two issues about money.
Some Democrats don’t like Bloomberg using his billions to compete with candidates who raise money the usual way: begging other people for it. But I’ve listened to voters talking in polls and focus groups about self-funded candidates. They typically say, “It’s his money. He can do what he wants with it.” And, “At least he can’t be bought.”
That’s what Trump’s supporters say about him.
Cunningham has a financial advantage in the primary because he has the backing of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who controls the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That helps Cunningham raise big money. It’s why VoteVets is running ads for him.
That galls his opponents, like Senator Smith. It galled Deborah Ross, the Democratic Senate nominee in 2016, and state Senator Jeff Jackson, both of whom wanted to run this time.
It just goes to show the power of party caucuses today, in both parties. Senator Thom Tillis got the same support from Mitch McConnell.
Certainly, it can feel unfair when your opponent has money and you don’t. But how do we solve that? If you limit spending, you favor incumbents and career politicians over newcomers and outsiders. You deprive citizens of what they need and deserve to have when they vote: information.
Politics is – and should be – about getting information to voters.
Which reminds me of what a wise old politician told me years ago: “Never underestimate the intelligence of voters. But never overestimate how much information they have.”