Can’t Buy You Love

The essential yet limited role of money in politics

Two months before Election Day, 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 the latest election cycle, including money spent 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 the 2010 poster child for the lesson that money can’t buy you love was 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 lost by eight points even though its supporters outspent its opponents by 10 to 1.

At the other end of the spending spectrum, reason Contributing Editor David Weigel, writing in Slate, 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.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both found that independent spending helped Republicans mainly by eroding (but not erasing) the financial advantage enjoyed by incumbents—whose re-election rate, even in a year of supposedly sweeping change, was still about 85 percent. Yet the role played by “shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names,” as President Barack 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 a 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, 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 2010 decision in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on the political speech of unions and corporations. Some 2010 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 big spenders such as McMahon and Whitman vividly demonstrate, the ability to reach a wide audience does not guarantee that you will persuade anyone. 

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Suki||

    Good morning reason!

    Good morning Jacob!

  • ||

    Money can't buy you love.

    But it can buy some interesting substitutes.

  • Gregory Goldmaker||

    Money can't buy you happiness.

    But it lets you choose your form of misery.

  • ||

    It can buy you a nice bath and massage at the secrets of asian gardens, with ALL your nooks and crannies sparkling...

  • X||

  • MNG||

    I've always thought it strange when campaign finance laws are decried as incumbent protection. Certainly among their other advantages one can add for incumbents that they are best positioned to drum up support among corporations and/or "outside" groups. Especially when you consider that many campaign finance proponents want to publicly fund what will be their opponents it seems hard to buy that charge against them.

  • ||

    I would love publicly funded campaigns. How much will be allowed to be spent per campaign? How serious does a candidacy need to be to deserve funding? How many candidates can be funded? If we could bankrupt the gov't with this kind of reform I'd be all for it.

  • Gregory Smith||

    Publicly funded? Are you nuts? Running for office is not a right, it's a privilege, if you can't manipulate people into giving you money, you don't belong in politics!
    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

  • Gregory Smith||

    Publicly funded? Are you nuts? Running for office is not a right, it's a privilege, if you can't manipulate people into giving you money, you don't belong in politics!
    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

  • sevo||

    "Especially when you consider that many campaign finance proponents want to publicly fund what will be their opponents it seems hard to buy that charge against them."

    Uh, I have controlling interest on the north anchorage of a very large and important bridge. And if you act now, I'm prepared to offer you a very good deal on it.

  • Jack||

    Incumbents' advantages include name recognition, franking priveleges, etc. If all I cared about was getting re-elected, I'd be for limiting my challenger's ability to evercome those advantages by out-spending me through public funding, also.

  • Bawny Fwank||

    Let me tell you, the fwanking pwivileges ALONE are worth it!

  • Zeb||

    Campaign finance laws basically make it so that any candidate running for national office needs a full time legal staff to deal with the compliance paperwork. This prices out any small grassroots candidate immediately. It doesn't only favor incumbents, it favors establishment candidates with strong support from one of the two major parties.

  • Barack Obama||

    Clearly, the mere threat of corporate interests and their shadowy organizations buying this election forced decent, average Americans to donate more themselves -- thus diverting funds that could better have been used to create jobs for working families!

  • MNG||

    Raese, Mcmahon and Whitman's cases can actually make the opposite point imo. All three were pretty poor candidates who would have been much more soundly trounced had they not chucked so much money into their races.

  • Destrudo||

    You COULD try to make this point, but you would be using same kind of stupid non-logic as saying unemployment WOULD have been WORSE if we didn't flush all that stimulus money down the loo.

  • sevo||

    "All three were pretty poor candidates who would have been much more soundly trounced had they not chucked so much money into their races."

    So, IOWs, money doesn't make the difference? Glad you agree.

  • Tony||

    At least in Whitman's case it might be that her obscene spending actually was a factor in turning voters off. But that's still an outlier and not a reason to pretend that money doesn't have substantial influence in elections.

  • Zeb||

    I don't vote for the candidate who has the most ads on TV, do you? Who are all of these people voting for people because they spend more money?

  • Skip||

    Corzine in 2005?

  • Tony||

    Why would candidates bother raising and spending money if it had no effect on the outcome? Advertising is an old business.

  • sevo||

    Tony|1.21.11 @ 4:14PM|#
    "Why would candidates bother raising and spending money if it had no effect on the outcome? Advertising is an old business."

    Just once could you post without a damn strawman?
    No body said it takes *no* money to get elected, bozo.

  • ||

    I've always thought it strange when campaign finance laws are decried as incumbent protection.

    These laws are certainly intended as incumbent protection. They contain huge loopholes for contributions to the political parties, which always support the incumbent. They impose intolerable regulatory burdens on smaller players, which works to the incumbent's favor.

    Putting campaign finance under government control will of course favor the people in charge of the government. How could it not? The fact that the courts threw out a provision included by one party to damage the other party doesn't change this fundamental dynamic.

    Raese, Mcmahon and Whitman's cases can actually make the opposite point imo.

    Not at all. They were spending their own money, which was not affected at all by either MF or CU.

  • ||

    Money from independent groups, including those favoring Democrats as well as Republicans, came to about $293 million, less than a tenth of the total.

    That doesn't include the unions, does it? I thought they spent $100MM last year all by themselves.

  • ||

    Just imagine the business they could open up with that type of investment.

  • sevo||

    The news article on Google's management rearrangement has the former CEO now charged with "Government Outreach".
    That's truly sad.

  • ||

    Money from independent groups, including those favoring Democrats as well as Republicans, came to about $293 million, less than a tenth of the total.

    That doesn't include the unions, does it? I thought they spent $100MM last year all by themselves.

  • Keith Olbermann||

    Who do they think they are, GE?

  • Rachel Maddow||

    I told you stop trying to get into my pants. Bye, Bye!

  • Tony||

    I like the point Lawrence Lessig made in the video on the other thread about Citizens United. We spend a lot of money supporting democracy in other countries; one would think that spending to ensure that elections are as democratic as possible in our own country would be a good use of public funds.

    The democratic viability of a candidate should depend on votes alone. Being able to raise the most money may be an indicator of popularity, but it is just as easily an indicator of who promises the most to donors and favors incumbents and major party candidates all the more.

  • Zeb||

    Getting the most votes is often an indicator of who promises the most to voters. How is that any different? And people still have to vote. Money doesn't win elections. Why do you think that voters are so fucking stupid that they can't help but vote for the candidate who spends marginally more money?

  • Robert||

    We spend a lot of money supporting democracy in other countries; one would think that spending to ensure that elections are as democratic as possible in our own country would be a good use of public funds.


    One would think so only if one thought of democracy as an unlimited quantitative good, i.e. that you could always buy more of it. No, we already have democracy, there's no way to get more of it in a country that's already democratic. It's like health, in that you can never be healthier than simply healthy. It's almost like pregnancy, in that you're either pregnant or not, but I'll allow that there are cases in jurisdictions where democracy exists in just a limited form and therefore "amount", but not in the USA.

  • Anonymous Poster Guy||

    My favorite part of this whole "money and corporations are evil! Corporations will buy your government!" meme is that if Obama wins re-election in 2012 (I assume he will), then all the lefties preaching about how corporations are buying our government will have to explain why Obama isn't just some corporate shill.

  • Watoosh||

    Most progressives have already abandoned Obama, because he is a corporate shill (Goldman Sachs was his second biggest contributor in 2008). They're already serious about challenging him in the primaries.

    Your comment is just breathtakingly condescending. It's as if you accuse the majority of leftists of not only being wrong on politics, but having zero principles either: "Hurr durr, I hear Obama is a Dem and dem Dems are all principuld libruls too so I'ma stick wit him thru thick and thin, huh?"

  • Gregory Smith||

    Obama isn't a corporate shill, he's a progressive shill. That jerk he appointed from GE, Immelt, he's an uber-progressive and tree hugger. Obama hates oil drilling, steel mills, manufacturing, he hates succseful industries and loves so-called "green energy" and environmental bullshit.

    Don't be a fool, Obama's is the black version of Chairman Mao. Just wait for his cultural revolution, we'll be eating fried chicken, listening to Jay-Z, and going to the "Wright" church.

    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

  • Zeb||

    Oh, for fuck's sake. He's a middle of the road American Liberal. There is enough shit to worry about in the real world without having to make shit up.

  • Spur||

    It's sad people think a Senate seat is worth spending so much on - politics shouldn't be that important - I mean think how many people they could pay to drop out of school or spray their homes with DDT - hell between Meg and Linda they could fund about 2000 new reality TV shows or thousand other more worthwhile projects.

  • Rock Action ||

    I would love to have publicly-funded, capped campaign spending and leave it to the purely objective information stalwarts at our local papers to fairly disseminate each candidate's views.

  • John-David||

    reason Contributing Editor David Weigel

    ugh.

  • observer||

    This article misses the point. Actually it avoids the point, which is not that more money wins elections, but that money beyond a certain (high and getting ever higher) threshold is needed to be in the game at all. And unless the candidate provides it out of his or her own pocket, that money has to be collected from business, government employee and other organized interests, who thereby buy control over the important details of government policy.

  • JohnJ||

    This doesn't seem to take into consideration non-monetary donations, such as journalists giving favorable coverage to candidates and causes they like. This tends to favor Democrats and could explain some of why Republicans often outspend Democrats and lose, but Democrats rarely lose when they outspend Republicans.

  • Pete||

    Well I guess the right can stop yelling about how the unions are using money to influence politics. Come on, seriously, your using anecdotal evidence to claim money is less important than we think? This is childless beyond belief. Of course money is a big deal. Why else would rich people be spending money on politics except to influence it? Just as advertisers spend billions to influence you as well. They don't do it on faith. They do it because it works. O.K. so Coke had a bad advertising campaign, that does not prove advertising does not work. Nor does a failed campaign show that money is less influential than we once thought.

  • Froggystyle||

    I disagree, money can buy love, this is call advertising!

  • nike running shoes||

    is good

  • Scarpe Nike Italia||

    is good

  • tory burch||

    Although said that money can't buy love, but no money but no girl will like you, can this again is why?

  • kangzhu||

    This plan has no merit

  • alipay||

    ThAnK

  • Jennifer7||

    I am sure it's clear that money plays a great role in politics.Even a main I would say.All the politicians say that they just want to make people's life better,but it doesn't mean that they do not want money.Honestly,now money plays a big role almost everywhere, in every sphere of our life.And yes, money can't buy you love. But if you're a politician money can buy you a vote, and in political language vote means love of your electors.Politics spend crazy money on their election campaigns, because on their careers depend on these campaigns.Honestly,I think that it's obviously how close politics is connected with money.All the politics have a goal to earn a lot of money and to get rich.But some of them do not forget to let people earn some money too, and there's the only positive moment.
    Jen from http://cashadvancesus.com/

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