# How many votes is a campaign contribution worth?

In the context of the United States and the election for President, is there a rule of thumb for how many votes you help a candidate get for each dollar you donate to their campaign?

The simplest way I can picture it is that one of the leading candidates will spend several hundreds of millions of dollars total, and in so doing will receive several tens of millions of votes, so maybe it’s one vote per \$10. But that’s an overall average, whereas I’m really interested in the marginal effect. How many more votes can a candidate generate by spending \$500,000,001 versus \$500,000,000?

It should have gone without saying that there isn’t a strict relationship here, that candidates increase and decrease their vote counts in many different ways, and so forth. But, there still must be a first order approximation for the effect of campaign donations, in a statistical sense, and candidates and their campaign managers and workers and fundraisers must be aware of this.

This article from the New York Times suggests there is no rule of thumb.

I believe for the purposes of a national campaign, any measure of that type is completely useless. If one concedes the point that say, additional advertising gains votes, then the cost of advertising must be rated depending on the cost of airtime. Airtime is much more expensive in large cities than it is in small ones, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the ratio of audience to price can be effectively scaled to account for the disparity.

Moreover, one has to account for the fact that a credible candidate is likely to draw a sizable vote from his base alone. So ‘buying’ the votes of someone’s political base is relatively cheap. Once you get into attracting undecided voters, the marginal ‘price’ of a vote goes up quickly.

Think of it as going to a nightclub: so long as you have enough money for your cover charge, you’re going to meet some ladies. But the cost of meeting more ladies probably gets higher and higher as you have to start buying them beers, then martinis, then champagne, in order to keep attracting the attention of more and more ladies.

I’m sure that some campaigns have invented metrics to say, “For every \$100 you give, you allow us to distribute 10,000 fliers which gets us that much closer to victory!” but any claims that additional funds actually gets more votes is probably more in the line of campaign BS.

Note: I have done actual, substantive work on political campaigns. The calculations of how much money was needed to win was based on the cost of overhead, travel, bought media (TV ads, etc), and so on. The idea that we would need xxx,000 votes to win and therefore need \$y million to do it would have been laughed at.

Oh, and don’t underestimate the ability to campaigns to waste money.

After the fact, you can certainly calculate \$ spent per vote received. That might be the closest to what you want.

But that is generally done only on the candidates’ committee expenditures. Given the large expenditures by 527 committees, churches, parties, etc. nowadays, that may not be so meaningful anymore.

But it has to be much more complicated. You’d have to know how many votes would have been cast with zero contributions. And even then it might be that the first million buys votes at one rate, the second million buys votes at a different rate…

Yes, it is much more complicated. Enough that I don’t think there is any real overall answer (like the NY Times article says). There is too much variation in local issues, candidate name recognition, district party affiliation, etc. which would overwhelm any ‘general’ rule of thumb you could come up with.

As I said, that is an after the fact figure that can be calculated, and compared between various candidates. And just what it means can certainly be debated.

There’s no correlation, because some campaigns are more efficient than others. In the recent GOP primaries, Romney’s campaign spent \$1M per delegate won, whereas Huckabee averaged 20 delegates for about the same amount. Also, the fact that both teams are spending for a nearly inelastic resource means that you might be outspent 2-to-1 for no gain.

I just read the NYT article - twice - and apparently missed its suggestion that there is no rule of thumb. The article describes the “furious spending”, how the infusion of cash helped one candidate, how hard the campaigns work to acquire funds and how huge the loans they take on are. The only sense I get from reading this article is the sense that every single campaign places a big priority on getting funds to help them win, which tells me they think there is on margin some return in votes on funds spent.

They’re competing for votes, and to the extent we keep hearing about record turnouts during this election, the resource is at least somewhat elastic. But it wouldn’t matter if votes were a completely fixed resource, because for the sake of any one campaign there’s still much more resource votes available at the cost of the others.

I think the entire industry, if we can call campaigning an industry. might have a very low return in votes. Give each candidate an extra billion dollars, and the total number of votes cast might not increase, or in disgust voters might even avoid the polls completely, giving a negative return. But, clearly, each campaign believes it’s getting some kind of return.

Are all the presidential campaigns, taken together, really going to spend a billion dollars without any marginal return rate in mind at all? It seems implausible to me.

As I said before, a campaign budget is built by running through scenarios of how the campaign is going to be structured. You start by establishing a campaign strategy: we need to campaign heavily in this area but not this one, deciding how much earned vs. bought media is needed and where, and generating scenarios of what personnel and support is needed to support that strategy.

Then a campaign will run out scenarios: a basic campaign will cost so much based on one set of assumptions. A stronger radio strategy will cost so much more. More TV time will add this much in cost. A heavy TV presence in major markets will be this figure or more. Then campaign strategists task the fundraisers and select the strategy based upon how successful they are in raising funds.

The budgeting process is similar to what a business would do: it is about establishing requirements and goals and analyzing what resources are needed to support those requirements and goals, then adjusting activities based on revenue.

The question you are asking seems to assume that campaigns are raising money in a kind of catch-as-catch-can manner. That isn’t really the case. Those who specialize in fundraising know that raising money takes money, and so they have their own budget to work within to raise funds with the highest yield at lowest cost. Campaign workers are organized around a strategy, which includes managing the campaign’s budget. One doesn’t budget for ‘buying’ votes, one budgets for campaign activities that fit into the strategy. Whether the strategy yields votes is really beyond the control of a campaign: sometimes the candidate sucks, sometimes people just don’t want to vote, sometimes the opponent is too good. Equating raising money to getting votes is an even less controllable or predictable task, except that if you don’t have enough money to run your basic campaign functions, you absolutely will lose.

>The question you are asking seems to assume that campaigns are raising money in a kind of catch-as-catch-can manner.

I don’t assume that about campaigns. They seem to need things - they need workers, policy research, organization of appearances and travel logistics, awareness of their competitors, telecommunications, all sorts of things. They need money, they run on money, at least partly. They have money specialists, including accounting people and fundraising people, they have people who contact past supporters, and so on. It is all to get votes, in the end - everything serves that goal, and (one hopes) serves it in a way that puts the candidate in a good position to take office.

But they have to make choices all the time. Appear in this state, or that one? Send a spouse? How many stops can we make before Thursday? In the general, are we going to win or lose Ohio? How much effort should we put there to be pretty confident we will win it, without putting any extra effort there that would better be spent in Arizona?

So, in effect, somebody is making choices in which the likely number of votes, and the cash outlay, both appear. Numerous people in a campaign must have to deal with compromising between money and votes (and other things too). At some level, somebody deals with a marginal return. Even if nobody has ever acknowledged it (which I guess is possible but seems unlikely).

And of course, Rudy Giuliani raised \$63 million and won zero delegates, which has got to be an all-time record. Opensecrets.org reports he had spent nearly \$55 million by the time he dropped out.

This year’s Republican primary is concrete proof that there is no correlation between fundraising and vote totals.

I see what you’re getting at. The return on investment is judged more at the campaign strategy level (is it worth investing more time in this area or that one?) rather than the fiscal level. Yes, the two are tied together – as I’ve said before, one needs resources to run a campaign – but the decisions about whether a dollar in advertising is better invested in one place or another is based on a lot more complex factors than how many votes that dollar buys, because that is not a realistic measurement.

The decision about where to invest campaign dollars – and more importantly, time – is based upon demographics, poll results, logistics, and a general assessment of effort vs. return. There is no rule about returning votes on dollars spent because a high-dollar ad buy in an area strongly for one’s opponent will yield little results, but a moderate-level ad buy in a soft area with a targeted message can be very effective.

The bottom line is that campaigning is an art, not a science.

>concrete proof that there is no correlation between fundraising and vote totals

How is that? If there is no correlation, why do any campaigns bother with fundraising at all? They MUST think there’s a correlation. Correlations are hardly disproven with a single point.

>The bottom line is that campaigning is an art, not a science.

Well, fine, but to go even further, art itself is an art, and galleries still make investment decisions.
OK, here’s a hypothetical thought experiment. Let’s put a little science into campaigning after all. Suppose that some way of buying votes directly gets invented, some method that isn’t illegal or unethical (like bribing delagates to betray their trusts), some fair and straightforward mechanism of trading cash directly into votes. Humor me.
Now, the votemongers who facilitate this transaction give quotes to the politicians, they offer votes at \$8.50 apiece, say. People in each campaign have a decision to make. Do they buy these votes? Or do they say, We can do better than that, we think an additional million dollars worth of commercials in California will generate 140,000 additional votes, so we are going to allocate funds to commercials and not to vote purchases.

In other words, if (as seems unlikely) there are actually no compromises or choices being made with expenditures to optimize the return in votes, well, consider manufacturing a choice with this novel invention, and using it as a test case.

Here’s a bizarre example I’ve read about, from the insurance industry. They actually interview people, including people who have been injured, and post hypothetical questions like, How much money would we have to give you to make you willing to lose a finger? A hand? An eye? How about if you only have one eye, how much to lose that? Because there are a lot of fingers that get lost each year, and courts can’t really reinvent the whole open-ended question of what a finger is worth, each time it happens. So even such an unpredictable, personal and subjective thing as the worth of fingers can and does get researched and estimated and used in practical ways. The point is not to turn fingers into a commodity, the point is that people who lose fingers often deserve compensation of some kind, and somebody has to work out how much it is.