Reporting on the effects of money on the body politic is roughly akin to reporting on the deleterious effects of cigarette smoke on the human body. Such revelations hardly come as news to most of us, though there are still a few holdouts (namely, those with a vested interest to the contrary) who refute the obvious causes and effects.
That said about the upcoming general election, few people can deny that money will continue to play an unprecedented role not only in the quantity of information (or misinformation) voters receive, but also the quality and substance of those messages. According to the Television Bureau of Advertising, political ad sales at the national level have climbed from $78 million in 1974 to $515 million in 1998, with revenues expected to exceed $600 by November 2000.
Over that same period, however, the amount of television news time devoted to the issues and the candidates themselves (rather than campaign strategies, scandals or political maneuvering) has declined substantially. For example, the average length of a television sound bite for a presidential candidate in 1968 was 43 seconds. By 1996, that sound bite had shrunk to 9.8 seconds, and by 1998 to 8.2 seconds. And with most voters saying they get the majority of their political information from television news sources, it’s no wonder that the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California trace a correlation between the decline in political news coverage and the historic decline in voter participation.
While national trends and figures can be a less than reliable indicator of what is happening in Montana—for example, Montanans vote at a rate higher than the national average—the fact that more money is being spent at the national level is bound to have an impact on Montana politics. After all, in a state where many people live on less than $20,000 a year, the average personal campaign donation runs about $25, a fact not lost on out-of-state political action committees. As political activist Bonnie Gee puts it, “A senate seat is a senate seat is a senate seat.”
As always, numbers are only as useful as the facts that support them, and can be used to draw whatever conclusions you like. Oftentimes, however, they do tell their own story.
Unless otherwise noted, the figures below are for the 1999-2000 election cycle, and were compiled from data from the Missoula County Board of Elections, The Federal Election Commission and the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena.
• Total political contributions made in Montana in 2000: $848,985.
• Total contributions to federal candidates, political parties and political action committees from Missoula
County made in 2000: $107,229
• Percentage of Missoula County contributions that went to Democratic candidates: 57.7%
• Percentage of Missoula County contributions that went to Republican candidates: 42.3%
• Rank of Plum Creek Timber among Montana’s top soft money donors in the 1999-2000 election cycle: 1
• Amount that Plum Creek has given to Republican candidates: $45,000
• Amount that Plum Creek has given to Democratic candidates: $0
• Percentage of Montana registered voters who voted in the 1998 general election: 53%
• Number of years since Montana voter turnout was that low: 78
• Amount of money raised thus far for CI-81, the constitutional initiative to ban legalized gambling in Montana: $6,000.
• Amount of money raised in opposition to CI-81: $550,000
• Total expenditures between Jan. 5 and May 20 on “Yes to Museums,” a committee that endorsed the passage of a mill levy to support the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and the Missoula Art Museum: $5,407.
• Total expenditures during the same period for “Citizens for a Weed-Free Future,” a committee supporting the passage of a weed control mill levy: $1,441.
• Votes in favor of the museum mill levy, which was defeated: 9,770.
• Votes in favor of the weed control mill levy, which passed: 10,797.
• Percentage of revenues made by a typical television station from political ads in 1992: 3.2%
• Projected revenues for a typical television station from political ads in 2000: 9.2%
• Change in total minutes of network news coverage of midterm elections from 1994 to 1998: -74%
• Minimum number of minutes each evening the Alliance for Better Campaigns has asked Montana television stations to devote to “candidate centered discourse:” 5
• Number of Montana stations that have signed up for the campaign: 0
• Odds in the fall of 1998 that a television viewer watching late local news would see a political ad rather than a political news story: 4 to 1.