Can't Buy You Love

The essential yet limited role of money in politics

Two months ago, The New York Times reported that "Democratic officials" believed "corporate interests, newly emboldened by regulatory changes," were trying to "buy the election." But it turned out the election was not for sale—at least, not to the highest bidder.

According to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, Democrats and Republicans each shelled out $1.6 billion during this election cycle, including spending by candidates, parties, party committees, and independent groups. In terms of spending, the two parties were evenly matched. But that is not how it looked on election night.

A closer look provides further evidence that Republicans did not win by outspending their opponents. They got substantially more votes in House races, where they spent less than Democrats yet picked up more than 60 seats (and control of the chamber), than they did in Senate races, where they spent more than Democrats and added half a dozen seats.

The squandered money included $46 million that Linda McMahon, the Republican Senate candidate in Connecticut, spent out of her personal funds, which amounted to nearly $100 for each vote she received. She lost by 12 points. Less dramatically, John Raese, the Republican running for a Senate seat in West Virginia, spent $4.6 million of his own money ($20 per vote) and lost by 10 points.

But this year's poster child for the lesson that money can't buy you love is former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who blew $140 million of her own money ($45 per vote) in her race for California governor against Democrat Jerry Brown, who won by 12 points. Also in California, a marijuana legalization initiative got more votes than Whitman but still lost by eight points, even though its supporters outspent its opponents by 10 to 1.

At the other end of the spending spectrum, Slate's Dave Weigel identified five House races in which extremely thrifty Republicans beat well-funded incumbents after raising far less than the $1 million that is commonly accepted as the threshold for a serious congressional campaign. Four of those Republicans also benefited from significant independent spending, ranging from about $200,000 to almost $1 million.

Analyses by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal found that independent spending helped Republicans mainly by eroding (but not erasing) the financial advantage enjoyed by incumbents—whose re-election rate, even in this year of supposedly sweeping change, was still about 85 percent. Still, the role played by "shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names," as President Obama describes organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's American Crossroads, should not be exaggerated. Money from independent groups, including those favoring Democrats as well as Republicans, came to about $293 million, less than one-tenth of the total.

The amount of independent spending was more than in any previous midterm year and nearly as much as in the last presidential election. But in a different political environment—one in which Democrats were less vulnerable and Republicans had less of a shot at seizing control of Congress—the impact of this spending might not even have been noticed. In a different political environment, of course, the money probably would not have been raised to begin with.

That consideration also makes it hard to evaluate the impact of Citizens United v. FEC, the January decision in which the Supreme Court dismayed Obama and other Democrats by overturning restrictions on the political speech of unions and corporations. Some of this year's ads—for example, messages sponsored by unions or nonprofit interest groups that amounted to "express advocacy" or its "functional equivalent"—would have been illegal prior to Citizens United. But much of the money that paid for those messages might otherwise have gone to groups that were already allowed to run campaign ads.  

Money clearly matters in politics, because speech cannot travel very far without it. But as disastrously unsuccessful big spenders such as McMahon and Whitman vividly demonstrate, the ability to reach a wide audience does not guarantee that you will persuade anyone.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Warty||

    Outside groups! Corporations! Money is not speech!

  • Cyto||

    Stop trying to confuse us with "evidence"... we know Citizens United made Obama forget to communicate how awesome he is, we read it in the New York Times...

  • ||

    In fairness, I believe that Republicans won a higher percentage of seats in the Senate, but OTOH did better among smaller population states, but on the third hand the particular set of seats up for the Senate was considered favorable for the Democrats and the Republicans were defending more seats.

    The fact that the election of the Senate is by thirds makes it difficult to compare.

  • ||

    The real problem, as identified by the NYT? Politics has been infiltrated by the wrong sort of people.

    Bring back Camelot, and let benevolent well-educated technocrats run the show.

  • ||

    Yeah, they're still trying to get King Arthur's brain stains out of the limo, though.

  • p90x||

    lol.

  • Realist||

    Yep, yeah can't fix stupid...California wanted Moon Beam!

  • Rhywun||

    I'm baffled. Why would team blue be opposed to lifting restrictions on the political speech of unions? Aren't they on the same team?

  • Jimbo||

    Whyrun,
    They aren't opposed to lifting restrictions on Unions. That's why they decided to "fix" the SCOTUS decision...and only bar companies from political speech.

  • ||

    All money is good for is getting a candidate's name and views known. Once the voters have a decent idea what a candidate is like (at least, a decent idea by their standards), additional spending doesn't seem to do very much. I don't know why so few people (including candidates) seem to realise this.

  • Nordicus Major||

    I think one reason professional politicians despise the freedom of people to assemble for the purpose of communicating political messages is that every dollar spent communicating with the people is a dollar not spent on lobbying or otherwise currying favor with the political class directly.

  • ||

    When you say money, do you mean Federal Reserve Notes? I really think the freedom loving capitalists of the world should follow the Liberty Dollar. It's absurd to think that U.S money is the only thing we can base trade on. Credit Card companies and Banks prove this to be true.

  • ||

    THANK YOU TO ALL VETERANS , THE COMMANDER ------NOV.11 ,2010

  • ||

    OBAMA goes about his business by speaking the lie. That he comes "with all deceivableness of unrighteousness and he spoke as a dragon and tells us that he was a false prophet, a prophet being one whose calling it is to speak and to teach. The armies of the world may have guns and tanks and bombs to bring people into submission; but the power of speech and ideas is a mighty power. In his initial attempts to destroy the cause of God, the devil used a serpent to deceive the woman with crooked speech: "You will be like God." Now he uses a "dragon" who speaks crafty, lying words. His speeches will be heard by millions who will hang on his persuasive rhetoric. The content as well as the form of his speech will attract. Like most false prophets, he will even be sincere and passionate. But he is a liar. He adds dashes of truth to the mix, so that his lie tastes like truth. He will use all the right catchwords, using the language of the church, even throwing in a Bible text or two. But he is the ultimate Liar, and will deceive many.
    OBAMA will use every tool available: school teachers, politicians, news broadcasters, artists, musicians, scientists and doctors, lawyers and businessmen. All will be pressed into the service of OBAMA to deceive men. But especially he will use those whose calling it is to persuade and to teach -- men who claim to be preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • ||

    TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT�..TO ALL THE COMMUNIST IN THE IG,FBI,CIA,AND U.S. Senators and the left wing media outlets�..Wake up america!!!! This goverment is the most corrupt we have had in years. The good old boy network is very much in charge.Mr. obama and pelosi are the puppet masters.How many of their good friends benefited by the agreement ” what a farce. All of the u.sSenators voted for this. I am ashamed to say I voted for the these corupted self serving politicians.With good reason they picked an out of towner to be president.All u.s departments need an overhaul. We need to rid ourselves of the puppet masters and the dept heads that bow down to obama and pelosi.I am sick of the lip service I have been getting from these dummies over violations, their friends are getting away with.in the goverment . Barack Hussein Obama , threatens friends and bows to Mmslim.

  • ||

    Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led." "The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one." "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it." "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.==="pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social hate ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half LIES, and the other half RACIAL. How can one expect THE USA to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit� The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned., THE COMMANDER

  • ||

    TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT…..TO ALL THE COMMUNIST IN THE IG,FBI,CIA,AND U.S. Senators and the left wing media outlets////////07 Sept. 2008 11:48:04 EST, Televised “Meet the Press” THEN Senator //Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, was asked about his stance on the
    American Flag.

    General Bill Ginn USAF (ret.) asked //Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, to explain WHY he doesn’t follow protocol when the National Anthem is played. The General stated to Obama that according to the United States Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Sec. 171 “…During rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all present (except those in uniform) are expected to stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Or, at the very least, ‘Stand and Face It’.”

    NOW GET THIS!! – - – - -
    ‘Senator’ //Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, replied:

    “As I’ve said about the flag pin, I don’t want to be perceived as taking sides”.
    “There are a lot of people in the world to whom the American flag is a symbol of oppression..”
    “The anthem itself conveys a war-like message. You know, the bombs bursting in air and all that sort of thing.”

    (ARE YOU READY FOR THIS???)

    //Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, continued: “The National Anthem should be ‘swapped’ for something less parochial and less bellicose. I like the song ‘I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing’. If that were our anthem, then, I might salute it. In my opinion, we should consider reinventing our National Anthem as well as ‘redesign’ our Flag to better offer our enemies hope and love. It’s my intention, if elected, to disarm America to the level of acceptance to our Middle East Brethren. If we, as a Nation of warring people, conduct ourselves like the nations of Islam, where peace prevails – - – perhaps a state or period of mutual accord could exist between our governments.”

    “When I become President, I will seek a pact of agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity, and a freedom from disquieting oppressive thoughts. We as a Nation, have placed upon the nations of Islam, an unfair injustice which is WHY my wife disrespects the Flag and she and I have attended several flag burning ceremonies in the past”.

    “Of course now, I have found myself about to become the President of the United States and I have put my hatred aside. I will use my power to bring CHANGE to this Nation, and offer the people a new path… My wife and I look forward to becoming our Country’s First black Family. Indeed, CHANGE is about to overwhelm the United States of America “INPEACH OBAMA THE COMMUNIST ,GOD OPEN YOUR EYES.//////For us there are only two possiblities: either we remain american or we come under the thumb of the communist Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. This latter must not occur.THE COMMANDER, ((THINK ))
    REPOST THIS IF YOU AGREE

  • ||

    THANK YOU TO ALL VETERANS , THE COMMANDER ------NOV.11 ,2010

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