The Money Myth

By Kellyn Brown

Does money really buy elections? We’re told that it does. I have previously written about the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and how third-party and corporate money could have an outsized influence on our elections. Sen. Jon Tester and the man challenging for his seat, Congressman Denny Rehberg, have traded accusations over who takes the most tainted cash. But the evidence that money spent on a campaign translates into more votes is muddy at best.

The latest anecdotal proof that contradicts conventional wisdom is the campaign of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He has been massively outspent in nearly every state by frontrunner Mitt Romney, yet the campaign slogs on. Whether that is due to Romney’s ineffectiveness as a candidate is for someone else to decide, but the numbers tell a reoccurring story.

At least one estimate shows that Romney and the super PACs supporting him spent eight times as much money on Iowa media than Santorum. Rick Perry spent even more. But Santorum ended up winning the state narrowly over Romney. Perry placed fifth.

The Washington Post broke the spending numbers down another way. It found, by only considering campaign spending (not third parties), that Perry spent $364 for each of his 12,442 votes in Iowa. Romney spent $49 per vote for a total of 29,874. And Santorum bought his 29,908 votes for the bargain-basement price of 73 cents each.

Then came Super Tuesday and the biggest prize of the night, Ohio. In the run-up to the primary, Santorum began complaining about the amount of money Romney and his super PACs were spending. At one point, Santorum claimed he was outspent 12 to one. Romney’s campaign said that figure was “not even close,” but, whatever the exact number, the former governor had poured far more resources into the state than his challengers. And, when the results were tallied, Romney won by a miniscule 0.8 percentage points.

Did all that money he spent put him over the top? Count Stephen Dubner, co-author of the bestselling book Freakonomics, as skeptical.

During a recent interview, Dubner said flatly, “money does not buy elections. At least nowhere near what we’ve been told.” He pointed to his colleague Steve Levitt’s study in which he found that “when a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra 1 percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose 1 percent of the popular vote.”

That small margin may matter in a place like Ohio but is far less significant in the long GOP primary. Levitt explained that winning candidates often have the most money because that candidate is often the most attractive to voters. Still, there are glaring exceptions.

In 2010 former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent $160 million – $140 million out of her own pocket – during her campaign for governor of California. She still lost badly to Jerry Brown, who had a much smaller budget and staff.

Dubner asked former New York mayor and GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani if he thought money buys elections. Giuliani said, “it’s always better to be the candidate with the most money, but you can win without it.”

Another study on election spending, this one by Americans for Campaign Reform, found that money does matter for candidates to gain name recognition and compete. But after hitting a certain threshold, after voters know who they are, the returns for spending money on a campaign are far more marginal.

In the GOP presidential election, and Montana’s U.S. Senate race for that matter, we will continually be told that certain candidates are trying to buy an election and that their third-party money is somehow a threat to democracy. But despite the fact that it does require money to launch a campaign, once it gains traction, it matters far less. And the losses should be blamed more on the candidates themselves.