NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Before the election recedes too far, there are a couple more takeaways that deserve attention. One is the money. Spending in the 2012 campaign reached record heights. Some estimates put the total at more than $6 billion, and the new outside groups, the superPACs and the nonprofits, spent more than a billion to buy maybe one million television ads. In a moment, the effect of that unprecedented flow of cash.
And many voters across the country objected to candidates chosen by loyalists in party primaries and new district lines that locked in safe races for incumbents of both parties. Our biggest state tried a new system that revamps the primaries, lets a bipartisan commission redraw the line and was supposed to increase the chances for more moderate candidates.
California voters, you know what we're talking about. How did the new system work out where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the hour the very different political process in Beijing as China chooses new leaders, and if you were in the path of the Nor'easter that brought more misery after Superstorm Sandy, email us now. Tell us about your experience. The email address again is email@example.com.
But first we're joined by our political junkie Ken Rudin here in Studio 3A. Ken, nice to have you back on the program.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi Neal.
CONAN: One whole day we've been apart. And few more - know more about how to follow the money than our own Peter Overby, NPR's correspondent for power, money and influence. He's also with us here in Studio 3A. Peter, nice to have you back.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Thank you, good to be here.
CONAN: And we're talking about those unprecedented levels of spending. How much good did it do? How much did it change things?
OVERBY: Well, at the very end, it didn't change much at all. You know, you look at the results of the races that the outside groups targeted, and their averages weren't that good, basically, or return on investment as people are calling it today.
If you look at it over the long haul, though, some of the superPACs and outside groups were pretty critical in the way the race unfolded. If you go back to the Republican primaries, the Romney superPAC Restore Our Future kept him in the race at a time that he was having trouble fundraising, and then going into the South Carolina primary, Sheldon Adelson pumped all this money into the Gingrich superPAC, and that's where the video turned up attacking Romney on the Bain Capital, job-killer-type...
CONAN: Vulture capitalists.
OVERBY: Yes, yes, that whole thing really - excuse me, really blossomed there. And that wouldn't have happened without Sheldon Adelson's money.
CONAN: There was also a period, again going back to the presidential campaign during the summer, when due to rules, it was difficult for the GOP nominee because he wasn't the nominee yet to spend money, and again the superPACs played a big role there.
OVERBY: Yeah, actually the 501(c)(4) groups that don't disclose their donors, the Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, and the other side of that was, to veer off into the weeds for just a second, that Romney's problem was partly because of the rules and partly because the small-donor fundraising base he had was so weak compared to his high donors.
He hit up the high donors. They maxed out the first time you ask them. You can't go back to them. If you have small donors, you can keep going back again and again, and you get cash flow. That was a major part of his problem.
RUDIN: Peter, yesterday on the show, Andy Kohut of Pew was talking about how poor of a candidate Mitt Romney was in so many different ways, flip-flops and this and that and the base of the party didn't rally behind him. But could you make - also make the argument that given the fact that the popular vote was 50 to 48, that President Obama only got 50 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Mitt Romney, that perhaps it would have been a bigger landslide on the president's behalf if all that money had not been spent?
OVERBY: It's possible, although you also figure that there's a pretty high baseline of people who wouldn't have voted for Obama no matter what. So, you know, you start there, and then what did the - what did the outside groups add on top of that? I'm not sure because, you know, in the - in a lot of the battleground states, you know, they were also playing in the Senate races, and they were losing those, too. So I think there's more to be sorted out, but I don't think it's clear.
RUDIN: OK, and there's also the possibility, the theory going on at the time that one of the reasons Mitt Romney went into Michigan and into Minnesota and Pennsylvania at the end not because he thought he could win those states but because he had so much money that there was some opportunities to buy time there that they didn't have it in the other states.
OVERBY: I don't know. I think that could be part of it. His superPAC, Restore Our Future, was, you know, was sort of taking fliers in some of those states before the campaign did, and they were saying, you know, we think there's something here, and they'd be in for a few weeks, then they'd be gone again.
So it was - even before you got to the point of let's spend all this money, you know, they were testing it out for quite some time.
CONAN: There's also the question, those are the - some of the pluses that the outside money can provide. But Peter, there's also the campaigns truly like to control the message when so much of the spending, so many of the advertisements are coming in from people you are legally not allowed to coordinate with. Nobody can control the message then.
OVERBY: I don't think that that's - I think they exaggerate that. I think, you know, certainly they can't tell the superPAC, the outside group what to say or not say, but, you know, if the candidate says I think this message is really destructive to me, you know, he's allowed to say that in public. And, you know, you've seen that happen in the primaries. So, you know, they're not allowed - they don't have to suffer in silence.
CONAN: I get your point, and few of these people are likely to suffer in silence, anyway. But in the meantime, you mentioned that return on investment. After the election, after they saw these results, you were reporting I think this morning that some of these groups and some of these individuals, well Shelly Adelson had a tough night, but they didn't much for all the money they spent. I think he spent over $50 million of his own dollars.
OVERBY: Yeah, he did, but the other thing is that a group like Americans for Prosperity doesn't look at this as the election being the end of the process. They are looking at it as building a grassroots movement. So I was talking to the head of AFP last night, and he was saying, you know, our board, our funders say that they're in it for the long haul, and you know, they've been around like eight years.
They get more sophisticated with their grassroots stuff all the time. And so, you know, you have an example of an organization that is building a grassroots network outside of the party structure, which I think is an interesting development.
CONAN: There was also, you had a wonderful quote about the long-term plan that the idea, once these lawsuits went through and the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United and other court decisions came down that said money is speech, you can't restrict the flow of, you know, in many circumstances of this money, that the goal was in fact to release all of the - get rid of all of the restrictions.
OVERBY: Right, which had been part of the plan. You know, if you deregulate the outside money, then you have the candidates and the parties playing with hard money that's restricted, and they're at a disadvantage. So you take out their limits, too, and then everything is even.
The problem with that is a constitutional one that when the Supreme Court first passed judgment on the campaign finance law, they said that the government had a constitutional right to restrict money going to candidates and party committees because of corruption and fear of an appearance of corruption.
So unless they're going to knock out the corruption rationale, they're going to have a hard time taking off those limits, I think.
CONAN: In the meantime, as we look ahead, the effect this time around may not have been much, but are people looking, saying maybe it was not the money but the way the money was spent, perhaps television advertising isn't all it's cracked up to be?
OVERBY: Yeah, I think that is really kind of a coming issue in big-time American politics, that it used to be if you wanted, you know, bang for the buck, TV was the place to put your money. And as the TV audience fragments, as younger voters, you know, go away from TV and are watching on their laptops and stuff, I think that, you know, the broadcast and cablecast ads are going to look less appealing.
RUDIN: Peter, is it also possible that the viewer is so saturated with negative ads, one after - especially if you live in a swing state, battleground state, it's nonstop negative after negative. I mean, how effective can these be, can this be when it's just relentless?
OVERBY: Yeah, I think that's a great question and one that the political consulting industry has to deal with. And they have - they may have a lot to deal with here because TV ads are where they make as much of their money. If you stop doing, you know, stop making TV advertising the top priority of the campaign, then the whole economics of the campaign industry might start to change.
RUDIN: Shouldn't campaigns be making - putting more of their money into campaign buttons?
OVERBY: Yes, I think that is really an up-and-coming thing, yeah, yeah.
RUDIN: Peter thanks, I appreciate that, thanks.
CONAN: So next time I - we can expect that there will be just as much, maybe more, money than the last time but directed somewhat differently?
OVERBY: I think so, yeah. Well, next time is not a presidential year, so it'll probably fall off some.
OVERBY: But there's going to be, you know, an interest in raising outside money because you don't have contribution limits, a lot of time you don't have to say who gave you the money, which is a great advantage to the donors. And there might well be an interest in giving to the groups that are most creative in new technology, new ways of doing ground operations.
CONAN: In the meantime, some of those groups that came together at the last minute to dump money into congressional races will have to disclose their donors I think in December. We will look forward to your reports on who those people were and the effect of their contributions because one of the reasons they gave in so late is they didn't have to disclose who they were before November 6, on election. Peter Overby, thanks very much for your time today.
OVERBY: Good to be here.
CONAN: NPR's Peter Overby, our correspondent for power, money and influence, joined us here in Studio 3A. Ken Rudin, political junkie, will stay with us. Up next, California voters tried out a new system yesterday: Whichever two candidates got the most votes in the primary no matter what their party won a spot on the ballot in the general election. If you voted in the Golden State, how did this new system work out where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about some of the lessons of Tuesday's election that we did not get a chance to get to yesterday. Ballots are still being counted, though, in a number of races across the country. Ron Barber, who finished out the term of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords ran for re-election in Arizona. He and Republican Martha McSally are still neck and neck, about 80,000 provisional and early votes have yet to be counted.
In California, Republican Mary Bono Mack trails Raul Ruiz, her Democratic challenger, by some 5,000 votes. Brian Bilbray, of California's 52nd District, is virtually tied with Democrat Scott Peters. Florida, of course, is still counting ballots in the presidential race, and in Florida's 18th District, Congressman Allen West trails his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy, by a couple of thousand votes. Allen's campaign called for a recount yesterday and promised to fight until every absentee and provisional ballot is counted.
This year's election brought more money than ever into the race. It also brought a number of changes in the way we vote, especially in California. A bipartisan commission there reconfigured congressional districts, and the primaries sent the top two candidates to the general election regardless of party.
The new lines and the new primary process intended to create opportunities for more moderate candidates. So California voters, how did it work? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Political junkie Ken Rudin is still with us, and Ken, as we look at some of those elections, we saw two Democrats running in a couple of different congressional races in California.
RUDIN: Right, and actually two of them, the famous Berman-Sherman race, that's the one in the Los Angeles area where Howard Berman, longtime incumbent, lost to fellow Democrat Brad Sherman. In another race between two Democrats, Janice Hahn defeated Laura Richardson, again, not a pick up for either party because it's about Democrats.
But what's interesting about California, no incumbent since Richard Pambo in 2006 has lost a House seat in California. So we've gone through 2008 and 2010, two cycles, with obviously over 100 races, and no incumbent has lost, and now you have a lot of incumbents who lost. Not only did those two incumbents we've talked about but also Pete Stark also lost to a fellow Democrat, and Pete Stark has been around since I think 1972.
CONAN: Jean Merl covers politics in California for the Los Angeles Times and joins us from a studio at their offices. Nice to have you on the program today.
JEAN MERL: Happy to be here, thank you.
CONAN: And we talked about some of those Democrat-on-Democrat races. How did the new system work out?
MERL: Well, it did produce quite a little bit of an earthquake in our political landscape, and in fact in California's congressional delegation, the only Democrats who lost lost to other Democrats.
CONAN: In fact you could look at California's congressional delegation that will take their offices next January, and it is complete - it's a sea change from the delegation that's going out.
MERL: Yes it is, at least 11 new faces.
CONAN: And some of those are, well, veterans who chose to retire rather than fight on in newly drawn districts, and others, as we say, people who had to run against member of their own party.
MERL: That's right.
CONAN: And so the system, though, was designed, at least in theory, to produce more moderate candidates. If you had to run against - in a heavily Democratic district, say for example, as opposed to be outflanked to the left and that person might win in a party primary, those two top Democrats would end up running against each other, and you'd have to compete for independents and Republican votes in the general election.
MERL: That's right. Reformers were hoping that they would ultimately get a more moderate state House and a more moderate congressional delegation.
CONAN: And as we look at the congressional delegation, we'll have to make those determinations on our own. But Ken, is it more moderate?
RUDIN: Well, it's hard to say. First of all, one of the big factors and the big change in California was not only did you have this new system where all the candidates were on the same June primary ballot, but there was major redistricting. So a lot of these Republicans who did retire, the Jerry Lewises - they love him in Paris, they love him - Jerry Lewis and David Dreier and all those longtime Republican incumbents were forced to retire because the lines were just so drawn.
Even though it was a bipartisan commission, it looks like the Republican got the - took the brunt of it.
CONAN: And how did it work out in the legislative races?
MERL: Well, in the legislative races it looks like the big news in California is that Democrats are looking at supermajorities in both houses, which is huge because they will no longer need the Republicans to raise taxes.
CONAN: Ah, previously you needed, what, a 75 percent...
MERL: You needed two-thirds vote to raise taxes in both houses, and they will have that, it's looking like.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Again, we want to hear from voters in California. How did this new system work out? Is it an improvement on the way things have been run in the past? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff(ph) is on the line with us from Fremont, California.
JEFF: Hey, say I live in the new 15th District, where Pete Stark was running that Ken mentioned, and he lost to who - the candidate that I consider to be slightly more moderate than Pete.
CONAN: And so is that a good thing or a bad thing?
JEFF: Well, I don't know whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. I tend to be on the very progressive end. So for me personally, it's a bad thing. But it's - I think that it was really the top-two primary that caused this, as opposed to the redistricting. The redistricting may have played a part because Pete Stark is now - you know, part of his new district were people who didn't know him as well.
But because of the top-two primary, that did mean that two Democrats were running against each other, and the guy who I see as the more moderate Democrat ended up winning, I suspect that he managed to get some independent Republican votes that helped him get there.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. Ken?
JEFF: Absolutely, take care.
RUDIN: But one thing I wanted to mention also that what it also does it that people like candidates of the Peace and Freedom Party, the Libertarian Party, all the third-party candidates who always appear on the ballot in November now no longer will. So I mean, this really basically it's down to two. So all those third-party candidates, those alternative voices, the Green Party for example, all those alternative voices you would have seen on the ballot in November you no longer will see, unless of course they finish in the top two.
CONAN: Which in the primary, which Jean Merl, that puts a premium on the primary. Did turnout increase in the primary as people realized it was going to be more important than ever?
MERL: No, the turnout in the primary in California was actually pretty low. And a lot of people still didn't quite realize, still didn't get the importance of the primary. They weren't aware of changes. And so we had a more conservative and smaller turnout in the primary. That's not the case in the general. And I think a lot of people are hoping that that will no longer be the case in future primaries as the electorate begins to realize the power they have in the primary.
CONAN: Let's go next to Nancy(ph), Nancy with us from Auburn, California.
NANCY: Hi there. We had an instance here for the State Assembly, two Republicans going against each other. Well, I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I realize that here in Placer County, I'm only one of about 38 percent of the registered voters here. There is mostly, you know, 60-something percent Republican versus 38-percent Democrat, but - and it's always been that way. I don't know why I live here.
But it's just that I have no representation in the State Assembly. I mean, I realize that in the state Senate I'm not going to - you know, my Democrat is never going to be beat out the Republican, but at least I would have a voice in saying so or at least, you know, having something. I don't like this at all.
CONAN: So you do not like after the first two primary that you had a choice between two Republicans?
NANCY: Yes, and the Democrat will never get in there, never will get up there because the Democrat is not going to come through and get into the top two. You know, like I say, there's only 38 percent. I mean, I realize we may be the only red county in California or at least the reddest county, but it's just, you know, we will probably never have a chance.
And then the other point that Mr. Rudin made was about the honing ground for if we're ever going to have a viable third-party candidate come out or a viable third party period, they'd kind of get honed down in those lower races, and they're never going to come out of it, ever.
CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for the phone call. And have you had a chance, Jean Merl, to crunch the numbers to see if turnout declined in those places where there were two members of one party running against each other, and members of the opposite party felt that they were disenfranchised?
MERL: I have not, but my guess is probably not because we had a pretty good turnout in some of those districts, particularly the Berman-Sherman district. And I don't think the fact that two members of the same party were running against each other affected turnout.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go to - this is Steve, Steve with us from Mountain View, California.
STEVE: Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I'm Steve Chapman, president of Californians for Electoral Reform. Couple of points I want to make. One is that the independent redistricting actually had a bigger effect because that allowed the Democrats to get their super majority in both the assembly and the state Senate. So that ironically is going to eliminate gridlock by allowing one party to dominate. (technical difficulties) the top two primaries produced some very anomalous results, for example, in the 31st Congressional District down in Southern California, it's a majority Latino district, but there were so many Latino Democrats running in the primary that they split the vote. And the two Republicans - only two Republicans (technical difficulties) primaries, they ended up getting the most votes. So now, you have this majority Latino district being represented by a Caucasian Republican.
CONAN: Do you think, Jean Merl, whether that's an anomaly, or are people going to have to just take some time to figure out how this new system works?
MERL: I think people are going to have to take some time to figure out how the new system works, and what the parties are trying to do is figure out how they can telegraph to their voters who their preferred candidates are, which may undercut the whole point but...
RUDIN: States (unintelligible).
RUDIN: (Unintelligible). But also, it's a question about ambition too. If you have a Latino district and you want Latino representation, having 15 Hispanic candidates running against two Anglo candidates, I mean, that's what happened in Memphis. You have a white Democrat, Steve Cohen, representing Congress because all the black - all the African-American political machines backed different candidates. So ultimately, if you want Latino representation in a Hispanic district, you have to rally around Latino candidates.
CONAN: And, Steve, are you still there?
STEVE: Yes, I am. That's why our organization advocates for proportional representation.
CONAN: So you're not necessarily in favor of this reform?
STEVE: No, we're not, and we're - our board of directors, representation small ballot (unintelligible) qualified political parties in California, including the Libertarian, Green and Peace and Freedom and their various set that after the 2014 gubernatorial election, they may lose their ballot status.
CONAN: Obviously, people vote for governor statewide, but those ballot spots are selected, Jean Merl, on results in other races.
MERL: Yes. That's true, and it is true that the third parties are kind of an endangered species, or could be, unless they find a way to interest more voters in their causes and what they have to offer.
CONAN: Just informatively, we know that their candidates do not win in congressional races. Do third-party candidates in California win legislative races?
MERL: I think they won an assembly race in the Bay Area a few years ago, but rarely, that's a bit of an anomaly too.
CONAN: Jean Merl, politics reporter for the Los Angeles Times, with us from a studio at the newspaper there. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Penny is with us, calling from Rocklin, California.
PENNY: Hello, Mr. Cohen(ph).
CONAN: It's Conan, but that's OK. Go ahead.
PENNY: I'm also in Placer, County, and where the - I think the biggest concern that we see - I heard your caller from Auburn - is not necessarily at the federal level and the House but our local state assembly races. There were Democrats that were just kicked off the ballot in a number of districts and because they didn't make the top two. I think the redistricting is less of an issue, but the top two is really a problem because your - as previous callers and guest have mentioned, those third-party candidates are important if - not necessarily for their candidates but the ideas that they bring into the race.
You know, they may not catch fire within the first year or maybe this first election or second election they're in, but they're important part of the process. And you force them out by using two top and I think...
CONAN: Again, Penny, you force them out of the general election, but if everybody focuses on the primary, this is the place where great ideas are debated, the primary becomes that venue.
PENNY: But with the emphasis on two top, they even get washed out to a certain degree even in the primary. I mean, the focus was so on the - in our counties, in my county and surrounding counties - on the Republican candidates that there was very little attention paid, even our local papers, about local debates and local meetings about different ideas and different candidates. I also want to mention that it may not have affected turnout this year, because you're talking about a presidential election, but I think you already have a problem with turnout in off-year elections.
I think the next off-year election is really going to be a bellwether as far as how this top two is going to affect that because if you get these districts that have two Democrats or two Republicans, and I really think in an off-year it's really going to show its effects by less involvement.
CONAN: Jean Merl, that's a fair question. Does anybody look forward to that?
MERL: Well, yes. But I think, again, you know, it puts a lot of - a lot is riding on the primary, and people need to get out and vote in the primary. And I think what the reformers who pushed this change would say is that the reality is that in a strongly Democratic district, the Democrat's going to win anyway. And that if you can get in there in the primary, you can affect who those choices will be between, and you may get - if you're a Republican, your goal is to get a Democrat who's a little more to your liking than, say, someone who would be more down the party line and perhaps less moderate.
CONAN: Penny, thanks very much for the phone call.
PENNY: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Ken, as we look ahead, it's obviously going to take some time before we know how the California experiment works out not just this election but the next legislative - the next off-year elections as well and then down the road. But are any other states considering reforms like this?
RUDIN: Well, actually, Arizona is talking about it as well. They just had a major redistricting. They had a nonpartisan redistricting of the nine congressional districts. There are nine congressional districts in Arizona. And they were also talking about top two finishers. But I mean, I understand these - all these phone calls, they're talking about usually - look, a lot of people are just - not a lot of people because if it was - it made a difference, we'd see them win. But in November, sometimes you just don't want to vote Democrat or Republican. You just want to have an option. And again, in California, that option is no longer there.
CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Brad. Brad with us from South Lake Tahoe.
BRAD: Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I just - to counter the two callers from Placer County - I live in El Dorado County, which is also an extremely right-winging community, and I'm a center left voter. I feel the top two voting districts resulted in a candidate being elected better represented my interests. The Republican candidate is going to be basically be elected automatically, and it prevented the - out-conservating(ph) each other from, you know, occurring in the primary and resulting in a far more right-winging candidate getting elected. I fell my interests are better represented by the more moderate-leaning Republican being elected than if a Democratic candidate who had no chance.
CONAN: Brad, I'm not sure outconservating is a word, Brad, but I like it.
RUDIN: It is now.
CONAN: It is now. Thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
BRAD: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's thank our guests as well. Jean Merl, politics reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Appreciate your time today.
MERL: Thank you. It was my pleasure.
CONAN: And political junkie Ken Rudin will be back with us Wednesday for another edition of the Political Junkie. In the meantime, you can see his ScuttleButton puzzle and his politics column. Go to npr.org/junkie. Ken, thanks very much.
RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up, as messy as our elections were, a very different transition of power is now playing out in Beijing. NPR's Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt back in Washington, D.C., today. He'll be with us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.