On the Media: Can Money Buy Elections?

The October 29 edition of NPR’s On The Media examines the influence of money in politics. Stephen Dubner, a journalist, coauthor of Freakonomics, and host of the popular Freakonomics podcast, says money’s influence is greatly exaggerated:

… of course you’re going to find political consultants, of course you’re going to find professors of political science, too; you’re going to find candidates, every candidate, you’re going to find campaign managers who tell you the money is key.

What I’m telling you is that if you actually use data to examine this question rather than polling, rather than the kind of received wisdom of political consultants and their kind of gut instinct, what the data show is that it’s just not true.

… It’s a good indicator of how rich a country we are that we can afford to flush two billion dollars down the toilet every year trying to influence elections when it’s almost inconsequential. Winning candidates do raise more money, but the relationship between the money and their winning, it’s just a correlation. It’s not causal.

So imagine you’d go out onto the street and it’s raining really hard and everybody’s got an umbrella. And if you’d didn’t know any better, you’d think, oh, man, those umbrellas are making it rain. If only those people would put away the umbrellas, the rain would stop. Right? That’s kind of the way people think about campaign spending and winning elections.

The people who win do raise and spend more money, but the reason they have more money is because they’re a more attractive candidate.

On the other hand, says Paul Freedman, an associate professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor of Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, it’s complicated:

Television advertising has a relatively modest effect. We’re talking about the margins. We’re talking about increasing the probability of voter turnout by really less than 10 percentage points.

Now, that’s not huge, but it’s not nothing. Many Senate races this cycle, and many House races, are going to be decided by very, very narrow margins. And so, changing voter turnout by two percentage points or three percentage points can make or break an election outcome.

… One of Barack Obama’s real advantages in 2008 was that he had much, much, much more money than John McCain to spend on television ads, and indeed he did. He out-broadcast John McCain by a wide margin. But in the primaries, John McCain was out-advertised and outspent by Mitt Romney.

And so, it’s certainly not always the case that he or she who has the most money wins, but all else equal, you don’t want to lose an election by one vote with one extra dollar in your campaign coffer.

If Dubner’s claim that money doesn’t matter were widely accepted, candidates would be more likely to opt for citizen campaign funding, and corporate contributors, seeing less of a return on their investment, would be less eager to fund third-party advertising.

Unfortunately, candidates for whom winning is the only thing are most likely to think like Freedman and to scramble for every last dollar. To the extent they do, the push for citizen funding of political campaigns will depend on idealistic candidates who care about how the game is played.

About Hamilton Richards

I retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days I volunteer technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), and several friends.
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