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.