Voter participation, number of donors decline as campaign money climbs

You'd call it a failure if you pumped up your advertising budget only to see your customer base shrink.

That's what happened in last week's election. Spending by candidates and their allied groups soared, while voter participation sagged.

In Kentucky, the cost of the U.S. Senate race more than tripled from the last Senate midterm — from $24 million in 2010 to $78 million this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics/OpenSecrets.org.

The Wesleyan Media Project studied two weeks in October and found that the McConnell-Grimes duel generated 10,300 television ads, one every two minutes.

All that money going into advertising and get-out-the vote efforts is bound to drive up interest, right?

Wrong. The percent of registered Kentucky voters who cast a ballot declined by almost 3 points from 49.1 four years ago to 46.4 last week, a 5 percent decline. It was Kentucky's lowest midterm turnout since 1994, another Republican landslide year.

One popular theory: The confusing morass of attack ads repels voters not just from both candidates but also from the whole process. The Wesleyan Media Project reports that 57 percent of the Senate ads in Kentucky were negative.

Political scientists should keep testing that theory; meanwhile, let's not forget that in Kentucky it's unusually inconvenient to vote.

Unlike here, 33 states and the District of Columbia have early voting, allowing ballots to be cast before Election Day, and 27 states and D.C. don't require an excuse to vote absentee. Washington, Oregon and Colorado mail every qualified voter a ballot that they can fill out and return by mail. And only two other states permanently bar felons from voting, as does Kentucky to its deep shame.

Of course, places where voting is more accessible also experienced dips in turnout last week. And voting is not the only form of participation that faltered.

The cost of elections always goes up; this year, as usual, there was more money. But, for the first time ever, there were fewer donors. In other words, fewer, wealthier donors are paying to elect the U.S. Senate.

In Kentucky, out-of-state residents accounted for 81 percent of victorious Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's contributions from individuals, with New York and Washington D.C. accounting for the most money. Of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes' contributions from individuals, 72 percent came from out of state with Los Angeles and New York leading the way, says OpenSecrets.org.

Outside groups — super PACs and "issues" non-profits that don't have to disclose their donors — spent more than ever. A former McConnell staffer, Scott Jennings, headed two such groups: The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spent $14 million from so-called "dark money" sources that don't have to be disclosed. Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which received less than 3 percent of its money from Kentuckians, spent more than $7 million.

Those who have succeeded in flooding elections with ever more money, including the Supreme Court majority and McConnell, extoll the value of vigorous political debate in a democracy. Looking at the inverse relation between money and voter participation in this election, they should reconsider.

But, then, maybe the "customers" they serve are not members of the voting public but the wealthy donors who bankroll the attack ads.