The big Pennsylvania election really isn't about the candidates

Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election
Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election


    Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election


Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election 02:31

Kristin Kanthak is an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh's political science department. She is co-editor of the State Politics and Policy Quarterly, a political science journal focusing on state politics. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)For years, political pundits have worried about how big money could drown out voters' voices. Now, big money is so plentiful that it drowns out the voices of candidates, too.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Pennsylvania's 18th District, where Republican Rick Saccone will take on Democrat Conor Lamb in Tuesday's special election to replace former incumbent Tim Murphy.
Kristin Kanthak
The highly gerrymandered 18th District, an "r" shape with tentacles that wrap around most of the city of Pittsburgh, is the latest battleground that pits millions of dollars from outside the district in an election that has little to do with the candidates and even less to do with the concerns of voters. Rather, the district has become a magnet for major donors who see special elections as a harbinger for what is to come in the midterm congressional election.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Saccone has spent about $614,000, while Lamb has spent about $3.06 million., a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign contributions, notes that virtually none of this money has been raised inside the district.
    But all this money is dwarfed by the more than $12.5 million funneled into the district from sources not connected to either candidate. And while Lamb has outpaced Saccone in individual fundraising efforts, pro-Saccone forces have poured in far more money than pro-Lamb forces.
    Outside conservative organizations have given over $8 million to pay for anti-Lamb coverage, including negative ads attempting to tie him to Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is so unpopular in the district that Lamb has pledged to vote against her for House Speaker should the Democrats win the majority in November. And outside liberal organizations have given over $1.5 million to anti-Saccone coverage, including ads painting Saccone as extravagant with taxpayer funds. One ad even hurls the phrase "Harrisburg politician" as an epithet.
    The district has also attracted the attention of big names on both sides of the aisle. Pennsylvania-born former Vice President Joe Biden was in the district stumping for Lamb last week. President Donald Trump made his third visit to the district -- two of those visits during his own election campaign -- on Saturday, when he told the crowd, "Personally, I like Rick Saccone. I think he's handsome," and calling Saccone's opponent "Lamb the sham."
    Our Constitution dictates that private citizens have a First Amendment right to say what they want about candidates, and the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, made clear that organizations (for profit and nonprofit) can spend as extravagantly as they choose to get that message out. But for those who want to exercise their First Amendment rights most effectively, they should use their money to drag down the candidate they don't like.
    Why? The answer is negative partisanship, a phenomenon whereby Americans' dislike of their least preferred party, not esteem for their most preferred party, motivates them to go to the polls. A recent article by Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven Webster in the political science journal Electoral Studies shows that since 2008, negative feelings about the opposing party provide a better explanation for party loyalty than do positive feelings about one's own party.
    And according to a recent Emerson College poll, about 56% of voters in the 18th District are "very excited" to vote in Tuesday's election. But this can't be attributed to excitement about the candidates or politicians. Despite having won the district by 20 points in 2016, Trump has an approval rating in the district of about 48%, reports the same poll. And neither Lamb nor Saccone break more than 50% approval either.
    So even though both are highly qualified candidates, selected by their party leaders to appear on the ballot, it appears unlikely voters will be showing up in support of their respective candidates.
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    But remember, this isn't an election about the candidates. It is about the money. Our campaign finance laws dictate that candidates have legal limits on how much money they can accept: only $5,000 per political action committee per year. In contrast, outside organizations can spend an unlimited amount if they do not coordinate with the candidates themselves. These outside forces can buy their own ads, focusing on what's wrong with the other guy in an effort to get voters to turn out in support of their guy.
    As is clear from the 18th District race, candidates can stick to the issues all they want, but the airwaves will remain filled with negative ads from outside sources. Candidates may have big ideas, but, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, it is the elections that have gotten small.