Election 2012

Can We Stop Talking About 'Buying' Elections Now?


Two years ago, Linda McMahon spent $46 million of her own money on a Senate race in Connecticut, which amounted to more than $100 for every vote she received. She lost by 12 points. Running for the state's other Senate seat this year, she got a better deal, spending $42 million, less than $70 per vote. She lost by 12 points.

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whom The New York Times dubs "the biggest single donor in political history," gave more than $60 million during this election cycle to ad-sponsoring independent groups. "Of the eight candidates he supported with tens of millions of dollars in contributions to super PACs," the Times notes, "none [was] victorious on Tuesday." In fact, despite all the overheated fears about the flood of corrupting money triggered by Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 decision in which the Supreme Court lifted limits on political speech by unions and corporations, the impact of those dollars has been less than apocalyptic:

While outside spending affected the election in innumerable ways—reshaping the Republican presidential nominating contest, clogging the airwaves with unprecedented amounts of negative advertising and shoring up embattled Republican incumbents in the House—the prizes most sought by the emerging class of megadonors remained outside their grasp. President Obama will return to the White House in January, and the Democrats have strengthened their lock on the Senate…

Flush with cash, Republican-leaning groups outspent Democratic ones by an even greater margin than in 2010. But rather than produce a major partisan imbalance, the money merely evened the playing field in many races.

Out of all the "innumerable ways" that "outside" spending supposedly affected this year's elections, the Times picks three, so you have to assume this is the best that critics of Citizens United can do. It is fair to say that super PACs had a noticeable impact on the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, allowing candidates who were not Mitt Romney to stay in the race longer than they otherwise would have. But making elections more competitive is a good thing, right? Likewise "negative advertising," if it is accurate and relevant. There is nothing inherently suspect about negative ads, which if anything tend to be more informative than vacuous, feel-good messages about what a fine fellow Candidate X is. I admit that "shoring up embattled Republican incumbents in the House" (or embattled Democratic incumbents in the House) could be a bad thing, depending on why they're embattled. But given the huge advantage that incumbents generally have, independent spending, on balance, is apt to make them less rather than more secure.

In fact, the incumbent advantage goes a long way in explaining why, by and large, winners tend to spend more. Donors are inclined to support candidates they think have a good shot at winning, and incumbency is the most important single factor affecting a candidate's prospects. Other factors, such as charisma, eloquence, physical attractiveness, and maybe even policy positions, likewise boost a candidate's chances, which in turn encourages donations to his campaign and to independent groups supporting him. Hence the general association between spending and victory does not mean dollars translate into votes.

Whether we are talking about self-funded campaigns like McMahon's (which have always been legal) or super PACs (which became possible thanks to Citizens United and a subsequent appeals court decision), money can't buy you love. It can buy you, at best, an opportunity to be heard, but if voters don't like what you are saying all the airwave-clogging negative advertising in the world will not deliver an electoral victory. In addition to McMahon's double fiasco, striking illustrations of this point from the 2012 election cycle include Wil Cardon, who spent $8 million of his own money on the Republican primary in the Arizona Senate race and lost to Jeff Flake by 48 points; Eric Hovde, who lost the Republican Senate nomination in Wisconsin to Tommy Thompson despite outspending him by 2 to 1; and John Brunner, who outspent Todd Akin by 3 to 1 in the contest for the Republican Senate nomination in Missouri but lost by six points. "Money is a necessary condition for electoral success," Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, tells the Times. "But it's not sufficient, and it's never been."

That's why it's silly to talk about "buying" elections, as if the biggest spender automatically wins. At the end of the day, we are still talking about speech, which works only if it persuades.


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  1. Sure, right up until the Democrats lose the 2014 elections. Only Republicans can buy elections silly.

    1. Yeah. I bet if the GOP buttfucks the Democrats for seats in Congress next time around, we’ll be hearing about how the human race is doomed to extinction, and how WAHHH WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. That’s pretty much all the substance their pinko bullshit is going to have, too, but it won’t stop them from regurgitating it at every possible turn.

  2. Can We Stop Talking About ‘Buying’ Elections Now?

    Seriously? I heard a leftist on the radio this morning talking about how ‘even though Citizens United was a terrible decision, this election proves that big money can be defeated by a strong message.’ Because the Obama campaign wasn’t ‘big money’, or something.

    1. He spent more than Romney in the election. But beyond that, it was the money he spent “governing” that actually bought him the election. I can’t wait for the auto industry to go belly up again 5 years from now, ideally, with a more intelligent man steering the ship of state to say “Fuck YoUAW.”

      1. Its hard for anyone to compete against the spigot of money that government handouts have become. The auto-bailout alone was probably worth at least $100 million in ad money for Obama in Ohio. That is probably what Obama means when he keeps talking about “investment”.

    2. That guy is just reality-based.

  3. That’s why it’s silly to talk about “buying” elections, as if the biggest spender automatically wins.

    Hmmm…. If memory serves, the biggest spender did win the POTUS election. Granted, the money he used to buy the election wasn’t freely donated to him, it was stolen from our wallets. But if you think for one second that the auto-bailout, Obamaphones, foodstamps, pell grant expansions, free birth control, and all other manner of handouts wasn’t him buying the election and turning this country into a sniveling bunch of craven leeches satiated only by Sugar Daddy Govt’s handouts, than you missed 2009-2012 entirely.

  4. and John Brunner, who outspent Todd Akin by 3 to 1 in the contest for the Republican Senate nomination in Missouri but lost by six points.

    Not a good example. The incumbent Democratic senator spent a bunch of money in that Republican primary making sure she got Akin as her opponent.

    1. So was her rape of the Missouri voter a legitimate one or an illegitimate one?

  5. Is this a joke? Of course Democrats will keep harping on Citizen’s United. The rich are the democrats go-to scapegoat for any problem. The debt: the rich need to contribute more, bad economy: the rich need to hire more, a democrat loses an election: the rich need to stop funding campaigns, a democrat gets diarrhea: the rich need to pay for free pepto.

  6. When “they” win it’s because they bought the election!

    When “we” win it’s because our ideas triumphed!

  7. Sounds like a plan to me dude. WOw.

  8. Ever hear of Elizabeth Warren? The worst candidate that money could buy… and it did.

  9. No, we can’t stop talking about buying elections. Narrative Uber Alles!

  10. Can we stop talking about people with a lot of money being brilliant, wisely investing supermen now?

    1. So, you’re promising not to trot out plutocrats like Unca Buffet who support higher taxes?

    2. Can we stop talking about people with a lot of money being brilliant, wisely investing supermen now?

      I bet you would have no problem with us talking about how fast people like Tyson Gay, Maurice Greene, Justin Gatlin, Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin are. I bet you would think it’s ludicrous to think of making them drag sleds as they run, to make the other runners seem faster.

      So what’s wrong with letting people who are good at investing make or lose theor own money according to their abilities?

    3. Some are, some aren’t.

    4. You’re right T o n y, we should absolutely stop talking about how government employees is brilliant and wise with our money.

  11. Can We Stop Talking About ‘Buying’ Elections Now?

    What are you kidding me? What do you think ObamaPhone was about? Rising food stamp roles? It’s clientelism, pure and simple.

  12. Ron Paul says virtually the same thing as Romney’s 47% comment:

    “‘People do not want anything cut,’ he said. ‘They want all the bailouts to come. They want the Fed to keep printing money. They do not believe we have gone off the cliff or are close to going off the cliff. They think we can patch it over, that we can somehow come up with a magic solution.'”

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    1. Except that’s not what Romney said. He said that all the people who are depending on government and don’t pay taxes (the 47%) were voting for Obama. Which isn’t true, and it’s not the same thing Paul said

  13. I as pro-Citizens United ruling as any Libertarian, but in the end it’s all down to which candidate the ordinary voter picks when going to the polls. Sheldon Adelson could have spent half a billion dollars and the results of this election would probably still be the same.

  14. Obama was millions of small donors, Rmoney could have financed himself.
    We still need a Constitutional Amendment to eliminate Corporate Political Speech.

  15. The only REASON that people voted against the Republicans is because they could see all the corruption from big donors and super-PACs. If we stop talking about money buying the elections, then the people will not know how corrupt the system is and they will not know to vote against it.

    When we see someone spend 600 times our salary to buy an election, we feel insulted. The people will never accept those who seek to subvert our democracy for their own ends.

    1. Then explain Mike Bloomberg.

  16. David Axelrod explained that the auto company bailouts were a vote-buying scheme for the Midwest. So no, I don’t think we can completely stop talking about it. Sure, being rich doesn’t necessarily mean you will win an election, and ad spending by outside groups can’t necessarily swing an election. But $1T of stimulus, and a $85B UAW/auto company bailout, sure can buy a lot of votes. Maybe even a Presidency.

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