Campaign Finance

Worried About Money in Politics? The 2020 Election Showed Political Cash Can't Buy Electoral Victory.

With a lot of money spent for little results, the most recent election was a rebuttal to arguments for campaign finance reform.


Democrats across the country opened their wallets and poured huge amounts of money into the race for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R–Ky.) seat in an effort to flip control of the chamber.

McConnell's Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, raised $88 million during the campaign, according to OpenSecrets, a website run by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks political fundraising. McConnell, on the other hand, raised only $55 million—though he had millions more in the bank from previous campaigns. Independent super PACs (political action committees), which are campaign organizations that operate independently of political candidates, also spent more heavily in favor of McGrath, according to OpenSecrets' data.

In the end, McConnell won reelection by nearly 20 points.

Kentucky wasn't an isolated incident. In several high-profile races in both the House and Senate, candidates with money failed to win critical races. In North Carolina, Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham lost despite raising $46 million to incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis' $21 million. When you combine that with spending by super PACs and other unaffiliated groups, the North Carolina race cost a bit more than $287 million—making it the most expensive Senate race of the year. In South Carolina, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison raised $107 million to Sen. Lindsey Graham's $72 million. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, raised $42 million in a failed attempt to take the Senate seat of Republican Steve Daines, who raised $27 million.

In every one of those states, the less well-funded incumbent won his race handily.

It wasn't only Democrats who spent big bucks only to lose on Election Day. Lacy Johnson, the well-funded Republican challenger to "squad" member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.), raised twice as much money as Omar, who won by almost 40 points in a heavily Democratic district. Laura Loomer, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, raised $2 million dollars to Democratic incumbent Lois Frankel's $1.4 million in Florida's 21st district, and also lost by 20 points.

The same phenomenon occurred in the presidential primaries. Billionaire candidates like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and environmental activist Tom Steyer self-funded expensive campaigns that failed to get much traction. Despite spending nine-figures of his own money, Bloomberg walked away with a single primary victory in American Samoa. Tom Steyer didn't even get that much, as he dropped out before Super Tuesday.

This election cycle cost almost $14 billion in spending, nearly twice as much as the 2016 cycle, the next most expensive election in U.S. history. Biden became the first presidential candidate ever to raise over a billion dollars, and there was more outside spending on elections than ever before. But how much of it was actually worthwhile?

While it is true that the vast majority of races are won by the candidate that raises and spends more money, most of those races aren't competitive, and it's essentially millions of dollars getting raised and spent for no reason. Take Rep. Steve Scalise (R–La.), who raised $30 million this year. His opponent raised almost nothing, and unsurprisingly Scalise won with ease.

But when it comes down to competitive races, money only does so much. There was a fear that in the post-Citizens United world, that money would be the deciding factor in politics and that corporations and their ilk could just buy seats. Sanders outright claimed that "billionaires can buy elections." Vice President-elect Kamala Harris argued that it has "damaged our democracy."

The evidence doesn't seem to back up those claims. As important as money is—and it is important—having more of it does not grant an electoral fait accompli. And if you still want money out of politics, take Mark Cuban's advice and spend your cash on those who need it—not on politicians who have plenty already.

NEXT: Canada Inches Closer to Allowing More People To Be Paid for Plasma

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  1. Be funny to see how much Pajama Boy Ossoff raises for the runoff. He’s good at spending other people’s money and losing. Socialism.

    1. One hopes that he can get prominent Hollywood Democrats to come to the state to teach the less fortunate how to vote. Yang would be good too, as well as the squad.
      Nothing a Southerner likes as much as Yankees giving in to a teaching moment.

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  2. Again, some of us haven’t been worried since HRC outraised and outspent Trump almost 2:1 and lost, if not before.

    Apparently, some people out there are going to need it pounded into their skulls though.

    1. There was also Meg Whitman’s run for CA governor, if memory serves. And plenty before that. Money only buys you an introduction.

      1. Ross Perot: Money will buy you a seat at the table, but it won’t buy you the White House.

    2. I don’t think these edge cases of very heavily leaning districts unable to be turned 180 degrees by money is very convincing that money doesn’t matter at all.

      And it doesn’t matter as much if money is effective in swaying elections, as is if politicians perceive campaign contributions as valuable, and therefor worth making policy based on which special interest group paid for it.

      1. And it doesn’t matter as much if money is effective in swaying elections, as is if politicians perceive campaign contributions as valuable, and therefor worth making policy based on which special interest group paid for it.

        Fair point. If sinking a few million to make a big show of whose name plate is on the door covers the tens of millions spent getting your preferred policies passed behind the scenes, who cares if the name plate wasn’t the one you backed?

        Not that the LP would have the first clue or even really care about that.

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    3. the trick is to funnel the spending to get out the vote efforts, not line your consultants’ pockets efforts.

      1. no no no. The trick is to spend less then what you expect to take in in bribes, kickbacks, and sweetheart deals.

    4. Curiously, everyone stopped worrying in 2008. At least everyone in the press stopped worrying at the exact same time.

      Before then, Big Money was the scourge of our political system.

      Now that Wall St, Silicon Valley, and the rest of Corporate America are on the same team as the Unions and Trial Lawyers, and blow $100Million on losing safe Senate Seats, no one ever mentions it anymore

      1. To wit:

        It was a crime against Nature when Republicans spent $78Million electing George W Bush in 2004.
        Democrats have already spent $170Million for unknown soyboy John Ossoff to lose a House election and come in 2nd in a Senate election, with probably another $100M to come on the runoff.

  3. Imagine all the good and helpful things I could do for my community if I had an extract million in my pocket! Just one million, that’s all!

    1. Now, just imagine the things you would actually do with that money.

      1. Hookers and drug dealers are part of the community, too. It takes a village.

      2. Ok, two million.

  4. “Sanders outright claimed that ‘billionaires can buy elections.'”

    I wish! If that’s the case, Drumpf could never have cheated his way to victory in 2016. Because billionaires overwhelmingly preferred Clinton.

    Fortunately billionaires got what they wanted this time — a Biden landslide. But this country would be so much better if the billionaire-backed candidate won 100% of the time.


    1. and Bloomberg would be the President-Elect now.

  5. Anyone look into how much was spent “helping” people to vote by mail?

  6. Bloomberg spent hundreds of millions on anti-gun campaigns too, I hear. Doubt he had much success either.

    1. Right.
      Let me film you as you walk into a NYC gun store and buy a handgun without ID and take immediate possession.

      1. That was basically impossible well before Bloomberg. Granted, his fraudulent “Everytown” campaign isn’t helping any – but given the ratio of that program’s success to its cost, it is an anecdote that supports the ‘money isn’t everything’ argument.

  7. You’re missing the point, MikeP2. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that all your claims about fraud in PA are clear and easily provable. Nevertheless, when you roll up to the national level and pro forma the results, it remains too evenly divided for either party to claim a “mandate” – which was all that ABC was saying Read More.

  8. On the other hand, the money spent buying secretaries of state has put Biden in the white house for as long as Kamala allows.
    The money spent buying AG’s across the country has put hundreds of violent rioters on the street while pro-life journalists are persecuted/prosecuted.

  9. What? Really?

    Guess you need to educate Trump and his lackeys here. Trump blamed his loss to Biden on “historic election interference from big media, BIG MONEY, and big tech,”

    But then, Trump is an idiot.

    1. I don’t see the Trump connection here very much. Money in politics is a bipartisan issue. Fascists or communists or Taliban, they all like money.

      1. IDK, that it’s a bipartisan issue. Sure, Republicans complain they didn’t make enough money to win or that the other side cheated by opting in and then out of public campaign financing pacts, but it’s not like they generally think CU was wrongly decided or that Soros shouldn’t be able to donate his money to candidates. They’re generally fine with Dorsey or Gates donating to whomever they please as long as they aren’t hiring only leftists as policy and devoting a lion’s share of their business worth/investor’s money to a political campaign without it being recognized as a donation in kind.

    2. Big media and Big Tech certainly carried Biden’s water for the entire campaign, you fucking idiot.

    3. Entirely different thing, that, but one doesn’t expect you to comprehend.

  10. Yeah sure, you say that, but look at the reality. Go ask Governor Whitman about how she bought her way into the California governorship. She’s a living rebuttal to you. Money guys anything because no one can resist being influenced by cold green cash. Trump would have won if he just flashed more cash.


    /riolinda Whitman lost that election despite her gobs of money and Democrat pantsshitting over her having gobs of money.

  11. “The 2020 Election Showed Political Cash Can’t Buy Electoral Victory”

    Except the author failed to mention the millions of dollars Charles Koch gave Reason to trash Trump during the past four years, and to campaign for Joe Biden during the past six months.

    Anyone know if Koch also give money to Jo Jorgensen to help Biden defeat Trump?

    1. Damn that Kochtopus is a tricky mythology beast. It is so powerful it destroys the Dems or Repubs every election cycle yet so weak it fails to win anything for itself.

      1. Koch and the LP seem to do a good job conning you libertarians out of your money though.

  12. money and influence will never be separated by campaign finance laws

  13. Money is only bad when the other team wins.

    1. John Davidson: The Proof Is Out There Of Nevada Voter Fraud

      Poor Democrats couldn’t help themselves giving Trump all the evidence he needs to have multiple states stripped of their EC votes for Biden. 12th Amendment here we come!


      1. Tell me more about the lizard people and how they are using the Freemasons to take over the world.

        1. That’s right. After the massive Russian 2016 electoral fraud, it stopped entirely and if you believe differently its like aliens or something – t. sarcasmic

          1. Of course electoral fraud happened before but this election was “special”.

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  15. Asking for politics without money is like asking for water that isn’t wet

  16. TV and radio ads are mostly a waste of money. No one makes up their mind based on commercials. Candidates can post their platform and speeches online at very low cost. Most voters either vote the party line, or make up their minds based on TV news coverage, not ads.

    1. At the Presidential level, maybe. At lower levels, it’s all about name-recognition. And radio/TV are good at that.

  17. From these examples, it looks like it’s not money that wins elections, but incumbency. Instead of campaign finance reform, we should demand some common sense incumbent control.

    1. Charisma black holes like McConnell, Pelosi, Schumer, etc. aren’t in charge because of their character or leadership ability, they’re in charge because of their ability to arrange hauling in money for their party. And their incumbency is a huge part of that.

  18. The purpose of campaign finance reform was to:
    1. Get a list of downers to Republicans so the progressives and socialists can target them for abuse
    2. Creat another tome of obtuse rules to use against non democrats.

    The complaints about money in politics aren’t about too much money, it’s about who get to donate and to who. So it’s more about power and punishment than amount

  19. Worried About Money in Politics? The 2020 Election Showed Political Cash Can’t Buy Electoral Victory.

    But Tony, the NYT and WaPo assured us that all it took was $150,000 in Facebook ads for the Russians to steal the 2016 one.

  20. Buy no, influence yes.

  21. Red herring alert!

    The problem is not, as Sanders says, “billionaires buy elections”. The problem is “billionaires buying politicians”.

    Does this author seriously think that WS and other big-money donors are just going to walk away from sleep Joe, et. al. after dropping billions in this last election? Do he really think Sheldon Adleson was donating bigly to Trump because of his concern for rural Americans and the Proud Boys, or was it for the Netanyahu and fellow Israelites?


  22. This article is way too thin on real statistical analysis to make its broad conclusions. The effects that money has on politics is also not limited to campaign spending. As others have pointed out, there are many other ways to spend money that can impact politics: ‘get out the vote’ efforts, funding of think tanks and their fellows that write Op-Eds, host conferences for like-minded politicians to attend and get ideas from, groups like ALEC that will actually write “model” legislation that state legislators sometimes copy and paste into their bills, lobbying, and more.

    I’d have to dig it up again, but I recall reading about some researchers that compared what legislation actually passed to what different groups wanted. They found that special interests with big lobbying expenditures tended to get what they wanted far more often than voters policy preferences. Campaign donors did a little better than voters, but it was the lobbying that really made an impact.

    If you really want to know how money affects politics, this is the kind of thing you really want to look at. Not who wins elections, but what legislation gets passed and what administrative rules get implemented. The real question is whether the voters themselves are actually determining what the government does, or whether the real power is in places other than the people’s hands.

  23. When I taught the Intro. Advertising course at our B-school, we always tried to get the message across that Advertising was about informing.
    If you don’t have enough, nobody even knows your product exists.
    Beyond that, the task is to inform people what this product is / what it does.
    (Far too many advertisers seem to think that more verbiage & superlatives will get people to buy a product that really isn’t a fit for them. That’s a great waste of the advertisers’ money. They make the mistake of assuming that the customer is much less insightful and much more easily persuasible than they themselves are. As Ogilvie warned them, “Gentlemen, the customer is your wife. And she’s not stupid.”)
    The customer already has some sense of what they like and don’t like. Good advertising gives them the information so they can decide “Is this for me, or maybe not?” With still more information, that customer comes increasingly to “Yeah; maybe I should try that.” Or “Nah; don’t think I’d like it.”
    Advertising thus speeds up the process of getting people to opt in or to opt out. And if they opt in and like it, your product takes off. If you lied to them, you may trick them into trying it, but you won’t get any repeat sales. (And you’re likely to get some bad word-of-mouth.) If you were pushing something few wanted, you just never get much in the way of sales. But at least you find out sooner.
    More dollars spent on political advertising probably gets people to think more about the candidate. But it doesn’t much change the voter’s preference structure. If you’re selling something they don’t want, more spending isn’t going to change that.

  24. So much of the political advertising I saw this cycle was negative advertising.
    And I note that many of the targets of these smears went on to win. One mechanism probably is that the advertiser was giving publicity to (and building name recognition for) their opponent. And I think it was Louis B. Mayer who said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
    But I wonder how many others had my reaction that, “Ya know; with enemies like this, that guy can’t be all bad!”

  25. When I taught the Intro. Advertising route at our B-school, we usually attempted to get the message across that Advertising was approximately informing. If you don’t have enough, nobody even is aware of your product exists.

  26. This article misses a critical point… the amount of money required to even enter a race. While McConnell ‘only” raised $55M to McGrath’s $88M, what about potential candidates who raised $1M? Money does two things: 1) sets a financial bar in that all candidates have to raise at least some minimal amount to be competitive and 2) ensures that the “billionaires” and other large donors from whom they’ll raise that money can exert strong influence over the content of the debate; influencing who can effectively compete. The article also admits that “the vast majority of races are won by the candidate that raises and spends more money” while cherry picking a few cases where that didn’t happen. It can be agreed that “billionaires can buy elections” is too broad a statement, but in our bumper-sticker political culture it makes the general point. When we talk about the media’s role in polarization, the Scalise reference is an excellent point. He raised $30M to easily beat a candidate that raise almost nothing… who was the primary beneficiary of that $30M? Likely the media entities that made the race seemed closer than it actual was and cashed large checks for advertising and the MasterCard PAC which most certainly saw a candidate elected who will see things their way. This is an interesting topic, but take the time to look at all angles. Money isn’t the only thing that matters, but it matters.

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