Does money buy elections?

Has there ever been any kind of study done on what the effect of a marginal $1 contribution to a U.S. presidential campaign is, in terms of election outcome?

I understand that often political contributions are a function of how much a candidate’s base like him or her, which certainly has a strong effect on how likely the candidate is to be elected. Just as clearly, I think get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives cost money and can swing a tight race. But do the millions each candidate winds up spending on TV spots, flyers, and other ads really result in additional votes come November 6?

My personal guess is: sometimes it does, but usually it doesn’t.

My basic logic is simple. In contested elections these days, both candidates get huge amounts of money and spend it all trying to sway votes, with the greatest sums being spent in the last few months before the election. Yet, in the majority of cases, the results of the election are pretty close to what the polls predicted before most of the money was spent. Furthermore, the great majority of voters says that they make a certain decision of who to vote for long before the election occurs. Most of the advertising dollars therefore are wasted showing ads to people who can’t be swayed.

There is some research that backs up this idea. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt claims to have found statistical evidence that campaign spending doesn’t matter. (Of course, given that some of his research is fraudulent, one doesn’t know whether that means anything or not.)

There certainly are a few cases where money has an effect when it’s spent wisely. If a candidate starts the race as a complete unknown, an advertising campaign can inform the voters who he is and what he stands for. Also, a creative and hard-hitting ad can have a much larger effect than the normal, boring stuff that most campaigns produce. For example, in the 2008 North Carolina Senate race, the Rocking Chairs ad was followed by a huge movement of support away from Dole and towards Hagan.

I think it’s like the nuclear arms race, if one side has a lot and the other side has a little, the side with a lot wins. If both sides have enough to saturate the airwaves though, saturating the airwaves a little more isn’t going to make a difference.

It’s hard to separate the two since popular support correlates with monetary support somewhat. I think a key data point in favor of money being overestimated is the consistent failure of candidates that heavily self-fund. That’s a clear case of money not being due to popular support, after all, you’re spending your own money because you couldn’t raise enough from the public. And such candidates fail more often than not despite outspending their opponents with their sizeable fortunes.

Another data point: In 2006 and 2010, the party that raised more money in the midterms lost. Badly. Corporate money tends to flow mostly to incumbents, so this could be another reflection of money being raised from big donors not being as useful as money being raised from a larger group of smaller donors.

http://www.opensecrets.org/parties/index.php?cmte=&cycle=2006

http://www.opensecrets.org/parties/index.php?cmte=&cycle=2010

A better question would be: Are the actions of elected officials biased toward populations of wealth against populations without wealth?

Yes, definitely, although they do fear the middle class, because that’s where elections are decided. This doesn’t matter on issues where the middle class is uninterested or not paying attention, but when the public is motivated against something, watch out. The 2006 and 2010 elections are again good examples. the money people wanted the incumbent party. The people disagreed strongly.

Simple answer: No, but it influences politics and policy.

Really bad analogy. That’s not how the Cold War was won.

But it was how WWII was won in the Pacific. I think the analogy is good, since it presupposes the use nukes, which never happened in the Cold War. And if the US and the USSR had gone to war, using nukes, would the winner have been decided by who had the most nukes?

I believe the movie Wargames taught us that noone wins when you play global thermonuclear war. The only way to win is not to play.

Well, another way to “play” global thermonuclear war is to threaten to play, and to do so convincingly enough that the other side believes you. The Cuban Missile Crisis involved this kind of meta-play.

“Yes, we WILL kill the entire f—ing planet.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, we WILL kill the entire f—ing planet first!”
“Oh, yeah? Well… Um… Hold on a second, I got something in my eye…”

I think the analogy was a good one; if one side in an election outspends the other by a huge margin, they will probably sway a significant number of votes. There is probably a “diminishing returns” effect, and the proportions are probably much less than linear. i.e., doubling the advertising budget will bring in far less than twice the number of new favorable voters. Maybe something more like a square root curve or a log curve.

Watching the voter polls and the ad budgets march in parallel in California’s recent tobacco-tax initiative certainly led a lot of us to believe that advertising “buys elections.”

Oh, I don’t disagree with you at all. I just wanted to take the opportunity make a topical Wargames joke. You don’t get the chance every day :slight_smile:

If money bought elections, there would be a hell of a lot more of it spent.

But if it didn’t, wouldn’t there be a whole lot less of it spent?

No, the winner would have been whatever parts of the Third World were not downwind of anyplace in the two combatant blocs.

Grin! I’m with ya! I often wait for years just to make a somewhat strained “Murder by Death” joke!

Any examples of someone who lost the presidential race but spent more money then the winner?

Politicians spend money to get their message out. Like the nuclear arms race, if someone else seems to be getting their message out a little more, then politicians get antsy and want to get theirs out still more. So what you have is the average voter viewing the same ads fifty times. Does anyone think they’ll change their mind viewing both sides’ ads another fifty times?

Now if they see only one side’s ads fifty times, that might be different, but if both sides are saturating the airwaves, the one doing it more isn’t going to have an advantage. Seeing an Obama ad 25 times and a Romney ad 50 times won’t make the average voter believe the Romney ad more.

The purpose of money in elections isn’t to win elections, it’s to buy out the politicians so that they do you favors that make you even more money AFTER they are in power.

So, THAT is why money in politics is bad, because the elected officials don’t do what is better for the people who voted for them, but their number one priority is with their corporate sponsors.

If you look at advertising I think most would come to a different conclusion. Things that are advertised more tend to sell more. If you compare a name brand to a store band even if they are the exact same product, the name brand will get more buyers.

Also consider if Romney airs twice as many ads people are twice as likely to see his ads over Obama’s. If one doesn’t spend all their time watching TV its possible they’d only see Romney ads.

Yes. IIRC, it matters less than the public thinks. Which is not to say there is no effect. And there is a minimum entry price for most campaigns as it were. Though empirical conclusions do not and cannot cover the tsunami of cash following Citizens United, as this is the first Presidential election following that ruling.

The real problem is the potential for corruption. If a congressman closes a loophole favoring a corporation, it can receive an avalanche of negative ads in response. At the Presidential level, that possibility is somewhat diluted to the larger scale. Meaning the loopholes have to be big ones, like not charging for the damages done by pollution.
OK, now I have to dig up cites.
Here’s one: http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2011/11/04/does-money-affect-election-outcomes-in-us-politics-a-quick-review-of-the-literature/
Evidence is mixed, but money seems to help. Though to a certain extent strong candidates attract better funding, so it’s hard to say.