Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


campaign-finance

(ILLUSTRATION: LHF GRAPHICS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Just How Much of a Problem Is Campaign Money?

• June 04, 2013 • 11:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: LHF GRAPHICS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Wait a minute. Last year was supposed to be the one in which big donors bought the election—but that didn’t happen. So why are we still getting worked up over the Citizens United decision?

Some recent pieces by Ezra Klein (here and here) and Jonathan Bernstein (here) made the very important point that 2012 was supposed to be the year that donors bought the election, but that basically didn’t happen. As Ezra wrote:

[I]t’s hard to look at the 2012 election, with its record fundraising and the flood of super PACs, and all the rest of it, and come away really persuaded that money was a decisive player. And yet the way we talked about money in the run-up to the 2012 election, we really suggested it would be a decisive player. In fact, we suggested, quite often, that it wouldn’t just decide the election, but that it would imperil democracy itself.

I think Klein’s description is accurate. A lot of political commentary, particularly that emanating from the combination of journalists, politicians, and activists he calls the “campaign finance community,” claimed that the growth of Super PACs and other well-heeled political organizations in the wake of the Citizens United case would overwhelm the voters’ voice. Yet despite unprecedented sums spent by these groups on behalf of Mitt Romney and many Republican congressional candidates, the votes ended up going almost exactly as we would have otherwise expected.

This isn’t a new pattern. It has generally been very difficult to pinpoint any specific effect of campaign spending on a general election outcome. Of course, it’s very difficult to do this in part because the research itself is so challenging to perform. That’s because spending levels tend to correlate with other politically important things, such as the quality of the candidate (prodigious fundraisers tend to be prodigious vote-getters, incumbents tend to have better access to donors, etc.). So if we see Candidate A outspending Candidate B, and Candidate A wins the election, did she win because of the money, or because she had certain qualities as a candidate that made her good at raising money and securing votes, even though one didn’t cause the other?

Economist Steven Levitt tried to get around this problem two decades ago with an innovative study. He looked solely at congressional re-matches: cases in which the same two candidates ran against each other multiple times. This allows us to factor out aspects of candidate quality and just isolate the impact of spending. He found that spending had detectable, but very small, effects. Each additional $100,000 spent by a candidate correlated with roughly 0.3 additional percentage points of the vote. (That was only for challengers, by the way. He found no effect of spending by incumbents, with whom voters already had some familiarity.) That’s not a huge effect. You could raise an extra $1 million (that was a big number for a congressional race back in the 1990s) and only hope to get about three extra points for that, and the vast majority of congressional races are decided by far larger margins.

John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found similarly-sized effects in their study of advertising in the 2012 presidential race. If one candidate doubled his amount of campaign advertisements, they found, his standing in the polls could go up by about a point. This proved to be a very ephemeral effect, though, disappearing after about a day.

Now, none of this means that campaign spending doesn’t matter at all, of course. Even with very small effects, an absurdly huge expenditure of money could be critical. But there is a saturation point where you just can’t get any more ads in front of people’s eyes. And we really don’t have a sense of whether the ads put together by Super PACs are as effective as those aired by the campaigns themselves.

Bernstein is right to note one particularly insidious aspect of campaign money: the amount of time spent by incumbents on fundraising. This keeps them late into the night talking or meeting with well-heeled donors instead of, say, their constituents, and may well distort their views about the sorts of issues confronting the nation. Michael Miller studied the states of Arizona and Maine, which adopted optional public financing for state legislative candidates a little over a decade ago, and found that those candidates who took the public money ended up spending their extra time doing the things we generally want candidates to do: knocking on doors, speaking with local voters, and so forth. This use of candidate time is definitely something to consider as we think about the thorny issue of campaign finance.

But the idea that voters can be bought with enough money just doesn’t hold water. And given that recent efforts to make campaign finance more fair just seem to result in more byzantine rules and less transparency, maybe we should stop trying to do that for a while.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.