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The business of politics

America’s best economic stimulus package is the Republican Presidential Primary Road Show. Will California get its share?

by steve churmPublished: March 01, 2012

Have you had enough of the presidential primary season? Not yet if you’re California or a host of states with elections set between now and June. Here’s why: Beyond the debate over policy and the philosophical posturing is the cold, hard fact that this primary year may long be remembered as the most costly in history, and that is proving to be a very good thing for states from coast to coast trying to fuel the pedestrian-like recovery that has many clutching their worry beads.
Thank goodness the Republicans can’t get behind one candidate to challenge President Obama, the current lessee of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Because of the mercurial status of the GOP’s leading men (Michelle Bachman having departed and Sarah Palin having never committed, thank goodness), every state on the traveling Republican Road Show is the beneficiary of a spending bonanza. Forget building bridges to nowhere or more dams or memorials. The 2012 national stimulus plan is the presidential primaries.

Listen carefully and you can hear cash registers ringing in every city, town or burg in which the candidates stop to stump. In January, the crowded GOP field of nine contenders spent $12.5 million on advertising in Iowa alone. Some state estimates put the total spent on coffee, donuts, hotel rooms, rent-a-cars, posters, AV equipment, temporary workers and other campaign ancillaries at more than $22 million. And Iowa was just the initial battleground. Just days later in South Carolina, the first test in the conservative south, Republicans dropped another $11.3 million on TV ads, and a lot more on barbecue brisket and beer, as they rallied supporters and raised more dollars to fill their campaign ATM accounts for the fight going forward.
Over and over, this saga of big-dollar deployment of messaging and teams has been played out in primary states such as Florida, Michigan and Arizona. Even caucus states such as Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota reported upticks in political spending this year compared to four years ago.   
The business question that all of this credit card swiping raises is this: Can voters be bought? Does the real ROI at the end of the spending frenzy result in votes and victories, or is it just a nice payday for the businesses and services along the political trail? Through late February, the answer is unclear. Certainly, local businesses in primary states are banking the windfall. But of the four GOP standard bearers still showing up at debates – Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul – none has emerged a clear favorite.

So the spending free-for-all has not created the hoped-for separation, particularly in the Romney camp. The former Massachusetts governor has significantly outspent his opponents but has failed to get the knockout punch expected to turn his sights – and spending – on Obama and the fall election.
For many in primary states to come this spring, that’s just fine. It means that the
GOP wrestling match will continue, and so will the spending. California is praying that the Republican nomination will still be up for grabs by the time the June 5 primary is front and center.
Just imagine the spending spree from Sacramento south to Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and San Diego. How ironic would it be in a state run by a Democratic governor if one of the best strategies for reducing the state’s elephant-sized budget deficit is a high-stakes GOP primary in which millions of dollars are spent. Think about it.