Contrary to conventional wisdom, Michael Bloomberg hasn’t spent too much money on his reelection campaign. In fact, New Yorkers would be better off if the mayor spent more seeking their votes.
Isn’t it a bad idea to spend a lot of money on campaigns? New York’s self-anointed guardians of the democratic process decry the record $90 million outlay by a popular, wealthy mayor. But this well-worn view that there is too much money in campaigns illustrates the conventional lack of wisdom on campaign spending.
Neither Bloomberg nor anyone else spends “too much” on campaigning. The nation as a whole devotes far less than one-tenth of one percent of its gross national product to political campaigns. At all levels, Americans spend just $20 per eligible voter to fund campaigns. We spend more per capita on potato chips than we do on campaigns.
Indeed, spending a lot of money on campaigns is good for our representative democracy. Higher campaign spending on more literature, advertising, and grassroots activity produces an electorate that is more engaged in and better informed about politics, and a politics that is more competitive. Higher spending also enables previously untapped, even ignored, constituents to be reached. For instance, Bloomberg’s campaign commercials ran not only in English and in Spanish, but also in Cantonese, Hindu, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, and Urdu. A lot of Bloomberg’s campaign spending went toward unglamorous yet important voter-registration and voter-mobilization efforts, including the placing of several hundred thousand phone calls to individual New Yorkers. Good old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing by thousands of volunteers made face-to-face contact with families in more than 600,000 homes across every borough of the city.
New Yorkers would have been better off if more, rather than less, ads had aired throughout the campaign. Voters arguably need more, not fewer, political ads on their car radios and on their television screens. In practice, money serves as a proxy for political speech, enabling political information to be widely disseminated and increasing the probability of competitive elections. Paltry spending ensures that voters receive only snippets of information. We need more information, however imperfect, not less, reverberating around the political system.
In 2001, unlike the average challenger, Bloomberg's incredibly successful business career afforded him the ability to self-finance the then-most-expensive mayoral campaign in American history. The major upside was an electorate far better informed about both of the two major candidates than if a more Scrooge-like figure had challenged the political establishment.
Revealingly, Bloomberg’s 2001 victory was the first time a Republican candidate succeeded a Republican mayor in New York City, where Democrats enjoy a massive five-to-one edge in party registration. The electoral machinery and political manpower at the borough, ward, and precinct levels tilt heavily against Republican candidates. The Democratic Party’s political infrastructure is better equipped, financially and numerically, for mobilizing its supporters. Therefore, Bloomberg’s spending served to level the partisan playing field.
Increased political competition and a better-informed electorate are worthy goals for a representative democracy. Bloomberg’s campaign spending has made both goals more attainable in New York City.