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.