John McCain

Money Can't Buy Me Love/Votes/a Mandate/etc

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Here's another reason to hope that Sen. John McCain shuffles into irrelevance—that shibboleth of "campaign finance reform" scolds, the idea that big money can buy elections, fell completely flat in 2006.

The average cost of winning a 2006 House race was about $966,000, based on pre-election finance reports, and $7.8 million for a Senate seat. In all, seven Republican congressional candidates and 33 Democrats managed to win their seats despite being outspent. Carol Shea-Porter, a New Hampshire Democrat, spent the least among outsiders to win a House seat—$123,257 at last report. For the Senate, Montana Democrat Jon Tester was the bargain-buyer, spending $3.8 million to unseat incumbent Conrad Burns.

These numbers are actually distorted by outliers like Hillary Clinton's Presidential windup in New York, where she spent $35.9 million to smash a hapless Republican. In close races, outspent Democrats triumphed over cash-flush Republicans. Jim Webb beat George Allen despite being outspent $13.4 million to $4.2 million. Jon Tester beat Conrad Burns spending $3.8 million to Burns' $7.5 million. Multi-millionaire candidates in Washington, Vermont, Nebraska and Arizona (the latter one a Democrat) all got creamed. And the figure's even more distorted when you factor in the spending of 527s and national party committees, which broke against Democrats.

Two groups of people should be eating crow about this. The first: the Barron's editors who miscalled most of the races, basing their predictions on fundraising. (They called Republican Mark Kennedy the winner in Minnesota. Kennedy lost by 20 points.) The second group: Campaign finance reformers, who've been arguing that we need to get big money out of the system by any extra-constitutional means necessary.

(Side note: the Connecticut Senate race was a true anomaly this year, as a cash-flush pro-war incumbent beat a millionaire anti-war challenger. Dead-ender pro-war columnists are insisting that this victory was "the most important" of the year. But let 'em have it. They need their fantasies.)

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  1. Yup, the fact that Tester spent less than $4 million dollars to win an election in Montana sure does show that you don’t need money to win an election.

    It may not be true that whomever spends more money wins, just as it isn’t true that whomever brings a larger gun to a gunfight wins. But the guy who doesn’t bring a gun at all is dead meat.

    It’s an arms race. Candidates have to raise large amounts of money not to “buy the election,” but to have a chance of winning.

  2. I would like to see the cost in $ / vote. (snark) That way I can just tell my local politicians that my vote is for sale and I would know what the market clearing rate for my vote is and I could charge accordingly. (/snark)

  3. I’m so glad to hear this. Now, undoubtedly, all politicians will conclude that money doesn’t matter in campaigns and they will stop selling their votes in Congress to get it. …In other news, the earth stops spinning on its axis.

  4. the idea that big money can buy elections, fell completely flat in 2006.

    While this may be true for this year, one year doesn’t prove or disprove that premise.

    This whole year seemed to be a bit of an anomaly. There was high anti-republican sentiment and frustration with those who were controlling congress. If that sentiment wasn’t there and the presidents approval ratings were around 50 instead of mid 30’s, I would bet that most of the guys who got outspent would have lost.

    I don’t believe it’s fair to hold this year up as typical when trying to prove that money ain’t gonna buy elections.

  5. ChicagoTom, your point is that if it weren’t for strong political convictions, money would matter more. I think that’s exactly the pro-free-speech point. Rather than criticizing public indifference, campaign finance attacks the efforts of those who aren’t indifferent. This election proved that evidence linking campaign spending to political success is evidence of voter apathy, not manipulation of the political process.

  6. Your whole premise is pretty intellectually dishonest. As other commentators have noted, it is one year and it is very likely that it was made possible *because* of the current campaign finance law. Moreover, the problem that most reformers have is not how much money gets spent in campaigning or how much is needed to win. the problem is how much money comes from how few sources, so that the elected official is later beholden to that source of funding. Your point does nothing to address that issue.

    If we are going to look at one year statistical results, the more relevant conclusion is that you anti-reformers should stop referring to campaign finance as an incumbent protection law. Look at the greater then normal rate that incumbents lost the first year campaign finance was enacted. The actual results certainly don’t bear out your prediction.

    I know its fun for libs to pick on McCain. Maybe its because they expect more, or maybe its jealousy that there is a moderate candidate that does not fully embrace all of the libertarian ideals, but there is a lot worse politicians out there that you should be focusing your efforts on. And despite your best wishes, I think if there is one thing that this election shows, it is not that McCain is “shuffl[ing] into irrelevence (sic).”

  7. the idea that big money can buy elections, fell completely flat in 2006.

    Not so fast, there. You said, “…seven Republican congressional candidates and 33 Democrats managed to win their seats despite being outspent.”

    So less than 10% won despite being outspent. 90% of the winners spent more than their competition. And Allen creamed himself while Burns ran a lousy campaign.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong…but your examples disprove, rather than support, your premise.

  8. Campaign finance laws are like business regulations. Big business can absorb the costs of compliance, but those costs can ruin the little guy. Likewise, the Two Party System is unaffected by campaign finance laws but they hurt the “little guy;” they only make it harder for challengers and third parties to raise money and campaign.

  9. Hey, Campaign Finance Reform works. The Washington Post said so.

  10. Bryan:
    Your whole premise is pretty intellectually dishonest. As other commentators have noted, it is one year and it is very likely that it was made possible *because* of the current campaign finance law.

    Nothing for nothing, but the system can *never* be better with limits to the first amendment. Ever.

  11. Paul, “nothing for nothing” but the Supreme Court has already ruled that certain campaign finance regulations are *not* limits to the first amendment. (No matter how much *you* might think that they are.)

    In the interest of finding common ground though, I think we both believe that any attempt to limit the speech of 527s would be a violation of the first amendment. Hopefully the Court would agree with us.

  12. “Campaign finance laws . . .only make it harder for challengers and third parties to raise money and campaign”

    James,

    Where is your evidence of this? Do the numbers show that third party candidates have raised less money in relation to the amount raised by the two major parties since campaign finance laws have taken effect?

    In fact, as it seems to me, that most people giving “big money” (over the donation limit) we have to assume are doing it in order to buy influence or favor. People willing to spend that much of their own money we would assume have an interest in who wins aside from just an ideological preference. People with a financial interest in the winner (rent seekers) are not going to give a ton of money to a third party because it would be a waste of their resources. As the LP candidate in Texas shows, even with money the third party candidate is not likely to be elected. Instead, the big money donor will just give even more money to the incumbent in order to a) make sure he wins; or b) make sure that everyone believes that the incumbent will win, and no credible candidates run against him.

  13. An individual should be free to run for office and accept donations from whoever he wants. If a Soros type wants to help a minor party or an independent with virtually unlimited funds, that’s his business and his right.

    Any law that makes it harder for the underdog to raise money will inherently discourage people from running who might have otherwise. That’s the unseen cost of campaign finance reform.

    There are ways to hold Congress accountable without assaulting the freedoms of everyone else.

  14. “Nothing for nothing, but the system can *never* be better with limits to the first amendment. Ever.”

    I wish I could adopt beliefs that liberated me from the need to examine evidence and think before reaching conclusions.

    Sadly, I remain a liberal.

  15. You want McCain to go away? I think that this election brings about his victory in ’08.

  16. Actually, a recent academic study found that spending matters little – for every time a candidate DOUBLES their spending, they gain about one additional percent of the vote. The set up of the study was pretty clever. Obviously, there are the confounding variables of actual policies and likeability of the candidates. How do you know that candidate B beat A because of spending, rather than policies, or vice versa? By only looking at pairs of candidates who faced off multiple times for the same post! If candidate B beats A, but four years later, A runs again with a lot more money and wins, it is pretty safe to assume that the actual qualities of the candidates have not changed and the money made the difference. What the study found is that money hardly matters at all.

    I do not think this is as much a “free speech” issue as some libertarians make it out to be. People running for office are self-selected and it could be said that they are voluntarily accepting some restrictions on their freedoms to do so. This is no different than any other job. By working for my company, for example, I have both implicitly and contractually accepted some restrictions on my speech. If I were to give our trade secrets to a competitor, I would be fired and sued. If I were to bad-mouth my company in public, I could also lose my job depending on the circumstances.

    Personally, I would love to see a ban on ALL television advertising before elections. This is the worthless black hole where all the money goes. Any “free speech” gained here is more than offset by the corruption and mis-information it brings.

  17. I completely disagree. By any sense of reason and accountability, no republican incumbent should have gotten a single vote. The fact that so many of these races were so close, despite all the scandals, lack of qualifications, idiotic decisions, failure to perform, etc. is a testament to how much big money is a factor in US elections. If money did not matter, every single race across the country would have been a democrat landslide.

  18. Chad,

    “Actually, a recent academic study found that spending matters little – for every time a candidate DOUBLES their spending, they gain about one additional percent of the vote.”

    That doesn’t demosntrate that spending matters very little. It demonstrates that spending above a certain level matters very little.

    Going back to my gunfight analogy, bringing a bigger gun might not increase your chances of success very much, but not having a gun at all means you’re going to lose.

    With some exceedingly rare exceptions, the minimum to be competitive in a Congressional race is well into the seven figure – still high enough to require the dialing for dollars and pandering to moneyed interests that campaign finance reforms, including public financing, are meant to address.

  19. i think there are certain monetary levels that need to be reached to have an effective campaign, to fully communicate with the voter. But at some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and money spent past that does not gain the candidate anything. But the problem is not the money spent on ads and such, its how beholden the politician might be to his benefitters and is that a premise to cronieism and corruption? I don’t think campaign finance reform will eliminate that.

  20. The fact that so many of these races were so close…

    On what are you basing that? From my point of view, only a handful were close (depending on how you define “close.”)

    In fact, I would go so far to say that the race overall was a Democratic Landslide.

  21. “Campaign finance laws . . .only make it harder for challengers and third parties to raise money and campaign”
    Where is your evidence of this? Do the numbers show that third party candidates have raised less money in relation to the amount raised by the two major parties since campaign finance laws have taken effect?

    It’s not the amount of money that’s the problem. It’s the bureaucracy necessary for compliance. Let’s say you want to run as an independent. Your Democratic and Republican opponents go to the schools their parties have for candidates to educate them in the myriad rules, forms, reporting deadlines, and limitations set forth in the law. You have to hire someone or do your own research. The party members can get bookkeeping services from party experts. You have to pay professionals, both because it’s a full-time job and because, given the penalties for non-compliance, you cannot afford to use volunteers. The party candidates and experts have a library of reference material published specifically for that election by the national organization. There’s no way you can independently afford such an asset. And so forth.

  22. Larry,

    A lot of the bureaucracy that you speak of can be overcome through limited pro bono work by lawyers and accountants. If you have a cause that you can convince one or two of them to believe in, they should be happy to donate their time to achieving your election. If you (or any other third party candidate) is unable to convince even one or two people with the knowledge of the bureaucracy that your candidacy is worthwhile, it may be evidence that you are not a viable candidate. Thus, such bureaucracy should not really be considered a major impediment to the election of any third party or independent candidates.

    Not to mention, if there is a market for helping independent candidates maneuver through the bureaucracy, you or some other expert should be able to make a reasonable living providing mass advise on compliance with the campaign finance laws. In other words, we should expect that the market will step in to fill this service.

  23. Obviously that should be “advice” not “advise.” I always do that when I type too fast. Damn.

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