There’s something appalling about Americans spending this much on a pair of Senate seats during a pandemic, when so many people desperately need money. The U.S. Senate has played a central role in the response to COVID-19, but this year of public-health messaging and vaccine distribution has also highlighted the importance of officials like governors and county health commissioners, whose races and appointments don’t generate nearly so much attention or cash. The majority of the money flowing into Georgia comes from outside the state, spent by people who likely have little connection to any of its residents. Every dollar is a statement that the most important political action in America is happening in Washington, not on school boards navigating in-person reopening or among local public-health officials battling the coronavirus. Political donations, especially the $5 or $10 hits on ActBlue or WinRed, make “you feel good about yourself. It takes five seconds. And you feel like your identity is that you’re the good guys, you’re smart, and the other side is evil and stupid,” Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University, told me.This is what politics has become in America: not a means to implement policy goals or improve people’s lives, but an expression of hatred for the other side…

And yet it’s not clear that all the money pumped into these races will actually make a difference in how people vote. It’s harder than you might think to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. The four candidates—Warnock and Jon Ossoff on the Democratic side, Loeffler and David Perdue on the Republican—made their biggest payments to media-buying groups in Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; Ohio; and Virginia, respectively, according to Federal Election Commission data. These firms are basically the candidates’ personal shoppers, although their specialty is ad inventory, not shoes. Media buyers find the most effective way for candidates to reach potential voters—things like direct mail and television spots—and do the work of spending those millions. In a typical election cycle, digital advertising would account for a hefty portion of the spending, but Facebook and Google both shut down political ads immediately after the November 3 general election to fight the spread of disinformation. Those bans remained in place until mid-December, just three weeks before the Georgia runoffs, which meant that the four candidates had to get creative about where to put their cash. In large part, their answer was television: WSB, Atlanta’s ABC affiliate, has earned $70 million from the runoffs alone, according to data from the website Ad Age and the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar, a market-research firm. As of late December, total spending on radio and television had exceeded $483 million, more than 90 percent of which went toward TV.