Oh, those awful political ads!

Billions of dollars are being spent by candidates for office all over the United States. In 2008, $5.3 billion was spent on federal elections alone. Even in a small state like North Dakota millions of dollars are spent to buy advertising, billboards, mailings, web sites and endorsements for the candidates for office.

In the contest for seats that have a national impact like the race between Rick berg and Heidi Heitkamp the stakes become even higher as organizations from around the country send money to the candidates to help in their campaign. The race for our second US Senate seat had, as of July 1, resulted in more than $3 million in campaign spending by the two candidates. They have another $3 million in the bank between them to try to influence your vote.

While the races for governor and US House of Representatives have lower stakes, they will still result in a total of more than two million dollars spent.

So far, according to their disclosure forms, the candidates for President of the United States had spent nearly a half a billion dollars by July 1, and there still were months before the election. The amount of money spent by candidates seeking our votes is mind-boggling.

Obviously, the money spent by a candidate has an impact on the election. If it didn’t, no one would give them any money. If the money spent on advertising, travel and public relations didn’t effect how people vote, there would be no point to spending billions of dollars on presidential elections.

There are rules about who can contribute, how much they can contribute, how the money is reported and what strings can be attached to the contributions. Recently the flood gates of contributions and spending were opened a little wider with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the “Citizens United” case which said it is a violation of corporations’ right to free speech to restrict their ability to make campaign contributions. The stakes went up.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t at least mildly disgusted by the money spent by both sides of the ticket to influence how we vote. At least we all make righteous protestations about the wasteful campaign spending we see in election years. Even those who benefit from the system, those elected to Congress, occasionally make feeble attempts to reform how we fund elections. No one seems to have a good idea for how to lessen the impact money has on whom we elect to represent us.

If we simply outlawed the practice of collecting money from political supporters and required candidates to spend their own money, only the rich could run for office. There is  a pot of money paid for with taxes or voluntary contributions that is divided between candidates. There used to be rules that said for every advertisement from one side in a debate, media needed to provide equal time to the other side. Politicians seem to be able to find the loopholes and the ways around the rules.

I have some suggestions.

Stop listening to political advertising. It is usually easy to spot. There are often flags and inspiring music, babies being kissed and hands being shaken while the candidate nods and smiles. The candidate is a saint, grew up in a home just like yours. They have worked hard. They understand you. They are good, noble, kind, and brave, and they have your best interests at heart. Their opponent is depicted as totally evil, corrupt or maybe even not too smart. These ads could be for either party’s candidate in most elections. Simply hit the mute button on your remote. Go to the bathroom. Get a snack.

Read and listen to the news with a large dose of skepticism. Many of the “news” items reported by radio, television and newspapers are the result of press releases. Many of them are printed or read word for word from information provided by the candidates’ media professionals. If the “news” seems to favor one side over the other and doesn’t present both sides of an issue, it is probably not actual investigative reporting but a press release. If a sound bite reduces the solution to a complex problem to a single sentence of less than six words, dig deeper.

Throw political mailings directly into the garbage can. Don’t read them, especially if they focus on what the candidate’s opponent thinks rather than what the candidate himself thinks.

Be careful in answering polls. Often the questions lead the answers or the options for your response are simplified answers to complex questions. Better yet, tell the pollster that you do not answer polls. Your opinion is important but polls are often used to influence how others vote. The only poll that should matter is the one that is cast at the ballot box.

Read, ask questions, learn more about the issues from both sides, not just the one that agrees with you. Finding sources of unbiased information is difficult but it can be done. Ask, “What does the person making a statement have to gain or lose if one side or the other wins?” Follow the money. Who paid for the mailing, advertisement or press release? Yes, it might drive up your blood pressure, but it might also change what you think.

Don’t just complain about how wasteful and disgusting campaign spending is. Make it irrelevant. Ignore it. Don’t be influenced by the slick advertising and clever sound bites. It won’t be easy. The techniques used to gain our support are exactly those used in propaganda and they are very effective. These techniques work or candidates and their friends would not spend millions of dollars on them.

The only thing that will really change campaign spending is for voters to become educated and aware. Make the dollars spent on negative advertising, exaggeration, spin doctoring and sound bites ineffective.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains