Americans Spend More on Thanksgiving Than Election 2018

by Dan Backer

When it’s all said and done, America will spend roughly $3 billion on Thanksgiving dinners this year—50 percent of it on turkeys alone.

That’s a whole lot of white meat and cranberry sauce—not to mention food comas. The $3 billion doesn’t even account for the billions more spent on Thanksgiving-themed advertising or the many billions spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. All in all, we’re talking well over $20 billion spent by advertisers and their customers in a sliver of late November.

Despite the occasional outcry against the commercialization of a sentimental family holiday, no one seriously speaks out against corporate ads about the turkey sale at the Piggly Wiggly, Kmart’s Black Friday specials, or Dallas Cowboys promos for Thanksgiving football.

As Americans, we accept corporate advertising as a way of life in a free-market economy. Why? Because we know there’s a choice: No matter how slickly produced the commercial, we ultimately buy what we want. That Tofurky ad isn’t forcing you to toss your turducken, is it?

But when it comes to our elections, we spend far less to advertise political messages, and yet the anti-speech movement to censor political ads grows shriller by the day. The U.S. electoral system is considerably less flush with cash than your typical holiday season. Election 2016’s final price tag—the most expensive of all time—came out to no more than $7 billion.

Election 2018 was even cheaper. The 2017-2018 election cycle—the most expensive midterm ever—cost a mere $5 billion over two years, a drop in the ocean compared to America’s Turkey Day shopping sprees. (In Virginia congressional campaign spending totaled about $66 million this year.)

But you wouldn’t know it listening to the Left. Leading up to Election Day, anti-Trump Democrats made it a mission to criticize our campaign finance system, screaming and shouting to “get money out of politics.” Jason Crow, Colorado’s newest Democratic congressman, recently blamed excessive political spending for “everything that’s wrong with our politics right now.” Recently re-elected Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) routinely claims the current system “hurts our democracy badly”—without going into specifics.

The likely Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), long ago made campaign finance reform a top priority for the new Congress. In her words: “People believe you that if you want to reduce the goal of money in politics, then they trust you to do the right thing.”

But is “money in politics” really so evil? Ads for Jeeps, Big Macs, and Harry Potter spin-offs flood our airwaves to a much, much larger extent, with nary a peep from the Left. Only when the content has to do with border security or tax cuts—and not end-of-year lease deals—do liberal Democrats throw a hissy fit.

In reality, corporate spending and political spending are not so different. Both are simply tools to promote ideas—ideas we can either like or dislike, accept or reject. In the end, it’s up to us—as free-thinking citizens—to decide which ideas we agree with and which products we want. There is no gun to your head or my head, forcing us to support an idea—or a political candidate, for that matter. Unless, of course, we adopt the Left’s increasing efforts to criminalize political speech they dislike, and use the power of Big Government to compel private individuals to act according to left-wing ideas.

Let’s be clear: When Democrats complain about our “broken” campaign finance system, they’re really just complaining about the ideas they happen to oppose—conservative ideas contrary to their own, from those who don’t buy into their left-wing ideology. Unless you accept the entirety of their ideological mashed-potato serving—whether you’re hungry for it or not—you’re just too stupid to be trusted to make your own decisions.

You might even be exposed to the “wrong” ideas! If not, why would it matter how many ads we all saw?

Our strength lies in our ideological diversity, which political spending puts on full display through robust political discourse and all the advertising people want to contribute to it. Without lots and lots of money, it is impossible to circulate ideas—liberal and conservative—to the general public. Ridding our campaign finance system of the resources to disseminate ideas is antithetical to the very concept of free speech.

Whether the 2018 midterms cost $5 billion or $50 billion, it’s still up to us to consider what information we want, and how we will vote accordingly. No amount of money can force you or me to vote against our self-interest.

To those who claim otherwise, I say gobble, gobble.

Dan Backer is founding attorney of political.law, a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

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20 responses to “Americans Spend More on Thanksgiving Than Election 2018

  1. Naw… it’s not about the money – it’s about anonymous money. If we knew who was behind some of the money – we’d know how to take the messages.

    I note in the 7th district this year – the numerous Ads that demonized the Democratic candidate – talking about that she taught at “terror high” and “tried to hide it” and other junk stuff – and in the end – the incumbent with strong support lost – primarily because of Henrico and Chesterfield – folks who apparently knew that dark money was at work in those ads and ignored them.

    I would posit that if we outlawed anonymous money – and everyone’ who donated had to be explicitly identified – the elections would be much different and not at all to the liking of those who prefer to donate money anonymously.

    • Great point. Who is behind the money is what matters!

    • Agreed. Far too many loopholes, far too easy to hide entirely, or hide until the reports are too late to be known to voters. In today’s environment weekly reporting is easy, and in the final week, daily reporting. You download the spreadsheet and email it, for goodness sake. Both sides love the dark money and conspire to maintain it. Our author just skates right past that little issue.

    • Under today’s laws, if Jeff Bezos can use his money to campaign for selected candidates through the editorials and selective reporting of the WaPo, why can’t someone else use their money to support or attack candidates? The media are just as much a campaign arm as any other political committee or group. It’s time for our campaign laws to recognize this. In today’s world, there is no reason to treat media editorial writing any different from any other corporate, Labor Union or nonprofit advocacy. We are not in the days where only the local newspaper could deliver news and views.

      If you want real campaign reform, we would pass a constitutional amendment that limits campaign contributions to those from human beings who reside in the same electoral district (including states for statewide offices) as the candidate being supported. No bundling. No PACs. No corporate contributions, including pushing candidates or issues on websites or other media. Ditto for Labor Unions or nonprofits of any type. Do anything that promotes a candidate or an issue and you lose your tax exempt status. And you also run afoul of the ban on corporate contributions.

  2. My turkey cost me 37 cents per pound or $5.11. I am in agreement with you, it costs to advertise and this is what makes America- America. There is a homeless person in Richmond who advertises his need for 50 cents everyday. I saved so much on the turkey, I gave him $20 bucks. I am going to put aside politics today, eat a meal, be thankful I am not in Yemen, say a prayer for those who are and those that can change their conditions, and be with family. If it cost Americans $50 billion, so be it. Tomorrow we change the world, today we are thankful we are Americans. Maybe we should spend more money on uniting the political factions and less money digressing to arguments for the sake of the party. How much does CNN make for their news regarding our President?Just so I am clear, I am not a Trump supporter, but I am an American and as such, I try to honor the President of this country.

  3. Some advertising has no cost, like Twitter.

  4. Campaign donations represent only a fraction of the total amount spent to influence political and public-policy outcomes. I feel confident in saying that the amount of money flowing to nonprofit organizations that engage in “educational” outreach and activism dwarfs the sums spent on political campaigns — although no one knows for sure because “dark money” is so hard to track.

    All rhetoric about the rightness or wrongness of campaign contributions is driven by political calculation. Democrats are happy to shut down corporate donations, an arena in which Republicans compete on a roughly equal terms, knowing full well that (a) the mainstream media is overwhelmingly Democratic in orientation and frames issues the way Democrats would like to frame them, and (b) that Democrats have built a much more robust network of politically active nonprofits, funded by wealthy patrons and foundations, than Republicans have.

  5. In this day of information and misinformation online, why do we exempt the media from campaign finance laws? Jeff Bezos can do and say anything using the WaPo but not directly through Amazon with respect to campaign finance laws. That does not make sense today.

    I support the media’s right to print or broadcast anything it wants but when does it become a campaign contribution? The Internet has equalized the differences between the press and the rest of us. Campaign finance laws need to recognize this fact.

    Similarly, no nonprofit should be able to participate in campaigns or otherwise try to influence public policy and keep their tax exempt status. If you really want to reduce the influence of wealth in American politics, we need to limit their ability to set up foundations on a tax-exempt basis.

  6. re: non-profit political stuff

    you may have remembered the IRS “scandal” in which they were refusing to grant non-profit status to organizations pretending to be non-political?

    The claim was that they were only doing it for certain organizations who leaned right – which sorta gave away their motives if you think about it.

    At any rate – I’m fine with more scrutiny and even limits but unless you require the actual donors of the money to be identified – they’re going to find whatever loopholes they can to promote mistruths and misrepresentations, etc.

    we need their names and once we know who they are – we can decide if we think their message is credible or not.

    Personally – I think any/all organizations left and right, environmental and all other should be free to promote their viewpoints but there’s a distinct difference between that and organizations that run attack ads, promote innuendo, lies and propaganda AND ALSO hide their money sources.

    we don’t need censorship – just transparency … people are smart enough once they see who is funding the message – what the truth is or is not.

    • My proposed law/constitutional amendment would treat any nonprofit the same. If you engage in politics, try to influence elected officials or even the public on a public policy issue, you lose your nonprofit status. If you spend your money helping poor kids go to college, sponsoring medical research, buying cars for low-income people, etc. and don’t advocate or try to influence the public or elected officials, you can retain your tax exempt status all other things being equal.

      But so long as the WSJ, NYT, WaPo or T-D can editorialize outside the campaign finance laws, I think people can bundle their money and spend as they will so long as they don’t coordinate with an candidate. For example, the Post suppresses news about Tim Kaine’s acceptance of freebies while reporting Bob McDonnell’s acceptance of freebies. And ranted and raved in multiple editorials, why can’t someone(s) else publicize Kaine’s behavior and rant and rave in ads?

      The special place given to the media to editorialize without being considered a campaign contribution makes no sense in today’s media-rich society. I’m not arguing about news reporting only pointing out that the media are the same as any other entity in terms of advocacy. So they should be treated the same for campaign finance? Moreover the Supreme Court has never really explained why the press exemption is truly distinct from the free speech clause. It was generally regarded at the founding of this nation that the ability of citizens to write letters to the editor and otherwise publicize their views in the press was the purpose of the inclusion of freedom of the press language in the First Amendment. It has been viewed as a mere extension of free speech.

      Others have argued that the press plays an independent role as a check on the other three branches of government. Given the monolithic nature of the MSM, it’s given up this role. Moreover, many others can and do attempt to check the role of government and a heckuva lot more than the MSM. Citizens United was properly decided, IMO.

      • TMT –

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments on campaign financing laws and state and nature of today’s disguises worn by mainstream press. Very enlightening and original commentary, much new food for thought.

        For example, this gem:

        “But so long as the WSJ, NYT, WaPo or T-D can editorialize outside the campaign finance laws, I think people can bundle their money and spend as they will so long as they don’t coordinate with an candidate.’

  7. Look at the following for an introduction to the loony concept of public financing for campaigns in my adopted state, among others:

    http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/public-financing-of-campaigns-overview.aspx

  8. If corporations have been given the right to ‘political speech’ under the law, as it was established by the Supreme’s rulings from 1976 on, in spite of the many advantages those corporations over us ordinary people, then it is absolutely certain that you must believe “No amount of money can force you or me to vote against our self-interest.”

    Oh … if that were only true! Political operatives will tell you that votes are about fear, the fear of change, or they are about hope, a hope for the future. Otherwise what are the voters in WVA doing when they continue to elect people who have made piles of money from the coal mines that have destroyed WVA and many of tis people?

    Yes, transparency is really important … who is making this argument and do they have a vested interest in the outcome, but transparency is not enough. A paper from the Wharton School tells us that corporations, which are actually just legal fictions, have always been trying to expand their rights… “the first Supreme Court case on the rights of African-Americans wasn’t decided until 1857. The first Supreme Court case on the rights of women was in 1873. But the first Supreme Court case on the rights of business corporations was decided in 1809, a half-century earlier.” Corporations have been winning those people rights, but is that what we really want?

    Generally, corporate personhood allows companies to hold property, enter contracts, and to sue and be sued just like a human being. But some human rights make no sense for a corporation. https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/hobby-lobby-argument ) The problem is that as corporations have won more rights of people, natural person rights, corporations have attempted to use those rights to strike down public interest laws protecting our environment, our healthcare, consumer rights, civil rights, and now our elections. Is it right to stop tobacco companies from marketing cigarettes to kids? Most of us think so but the only way to stop it is with laws.

    “The officers and directors who run corporations are actually duty-bound to act in the corporation’s best financial interest … This fiduciary duty requires corporate management to set aside ethical niceties when they get in the way of corporate profits… only laws prohibiting such conduct will keep them from doing so.” (David Noise Why Corporations are Psychotic)

    The ‘original intent’ of our Constitution had no knowledge of the power that large corporations could amass not matter how truly amazing the Founders were when it came to balancing the powers of the government they created. A small local corporation with local ownership would have a different point of view from the large, global corporations of today who answer only to institutional investors who have no personal liability for the corporation’s actions. Duty requires the corporation to pursue only revenues and profits and to spend as much as need be in an attempt to crush public interest advocates who would require more from them.

    Do we really want to have the quality of our environment, our drinking water, the air we breathe, our healthcare and civil and consumer rights determined only by their effect on some corporation’s/industry’s profits? I sure don’t, but then I am one of ‘those Dems’

    • Jane, you advance some reasonable arguments here. But in the end, it’s all about achieving tactical advantage in the pursuit of power.

      As I noted above, “Democrats are happy to shut down corporate donations, an arena in which Republicans compete on a roughly equal terms, knowing full well that (a) the mainstream media is overwhelmingly Democratic in orientation and frames issues the way Democrats would like to frame them, and (b) that Democrats have built a much more robust network of politically active nonprofits, funded by wealthy patrons and foundations, than Republicans have.”

      Democrats will sacrifice high-blown arguments of principle like yours in two seconds if it served them — as would Republicans if the roles were reversed.

      • Jim –

        I suggest you grossly interstate your case.

        Liberals now control the vast majority (more that 95%) of the Institutions of Higher Education in this country, as well as the great and growing majority of public secondary education, elementary, middle schools, and high school.

        Liberals also control the majority of the public service employees, and their unions in the country, federal and state, from top to bottom, save only for a small minority are political appointees. Liberals also control the American Bar and the American Medical Associations, and nations scientific associations and academies, and the entirety of America’ Academic community, and Americ’s mainstream churches.

        All of these organization today pursue almost exclusively their self interests, most importantly their financial self interests and objectives.

        In addition, the vast corporate wealth in this country, whether it be private or quasi public, is now in the hands of the liberal elite, and that disproportionate share of their control is growing by leaps and bounds.

        Because of all this, the rapid growth of crony capitalism, and its waste and misapplication of public monies, today is to an overwhelming degree controlled and “managed” by America Liberal elites operating as private corporate interests, no matter their disguise.

        • GEEZ, Reed. Not sure how you arrive at the conclusion that the ‘liberal elites’ are in charge of everything! WOW!

          Is that why Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are considering running for President …because they want to reach for tactical advantage? Is this why they have donated millions to build organizations that promote environmental goals and investments in renewable energy and a clean, safe, affordable energy economy?

          You say …”All of these organizations today pursue almost exclusively their self interests, most importantly their financial self interests and objectives”. There it is again … exactly what I am complaining about. My argument just has no political boogymen.

      • “But in the end, it’s all about achieving tactical advantage in the pursuit of power.” Yes, I think that is what I am complaining about.
        I am not talking about ideology or about R’s and D’s.

        Do you want a country in which “the pursuit of power” is the only objective? The Founding Fathers set up ‘balance of power centers’ to run the country. I am only saying that because of the way corporations have developed and the power they now hold … we need laws to curb their power. There are lots of polls that show exactly that. What the msjority of people want doesn’t mae it through the legislative process. Corporate power rules.

        So call my arguments ‘high-blown’ if you will but there are choices to be made that are better for ALL of us … like dealing with climate change by finding ways to restrict emissions … what 97% of scientists who have the facts agree needs to be done.
        .
        The only reason we have not moved fast enough to reduce those GHGs is the corporate power that blocked legislation that would benefit all but the fossil investors and the workers who fear for their livelihood.

        “The status quo is a sturdy thing. People will rise to defend it. Cultural apparatuses will rise to defend it.”

  9. “ALL of us … like dealing with climate change by finding ways to restrict emissions … what 97% of scientists who have the facts agree needs to be done.”

    I gotta admit, Jane, I admire your spunk!!! Keep at it!

    Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep poor Jim from being led astray by the siren’s song, keep him strapped to yardarm as Odysseus during his rough passages through the rocks of the narrow straights.

  10. Why would anyone believe Tom Streyer or Michael Bloomberg? They are both seeking power over others.

    If we had reporting about all aspects of climate change, we’d have a better foundation for making sound policy But climate is a religion that goes beyond science. Note: I’m not arguing that human behavior cannot affect climate nor that we should not continue to move to reliable, inexpensive and renewable sources of energy. But real debate looks at all the facts and data.

    https://www.investors.com/politics/editorials/climate-change-global-warming-earth-cooling-media-bias/

  11. “The officers and directors who run corporations are actually duty-bound to act in the corporation’s best financial interest … This fiduciary duty requires corporate management to set aside ethical niceties when they get in the way of corporate profits… only laws prohibiting such conduct will keep them from doing so.” (David Noise Why Corporations are Psychotic)”

    That’s not really true. Fiduciary responsibility is usually defined as acting in the best interests of another party. In practical terms it is usually a guideline for deciding whether one set of investors used unfair influence (through board seats, etc) over another set of investors.

    Corporations make all kinds of charitable contributions that serve to reduce profit and cash flow. According to the aptly named Mr. Noise they are all breaching their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders by giving to charity.

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