Cato Institute’s Trevor Burrus explains how campaign spending is actually helpful to voters. Imagine, writes Mr. Burrus, that contributions were limited to, say, $50 or $100. How long would it take a new candidate to amass enough money to get his or her name and ideals out there to challenge an entrenched incumbent? One study from The American Journal of Political Science concludes that advertising increases voter knowledge, interest and even turnout. Read here from Mr. Burrus three things about money in politics that you may not know about.
Campaign spending increases voter knowledge.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but imagine a world where contribution limits to candidates were set at $50, or even $100. It would take a long time to amass enough money to run just a single ad telling voters your name and ideals. Challenging an incumbent under those conditions would be nearly impossible. This is one reason why incumbents tend to like campaign finance laws.
Moreover, many studies have shown that ads increase voter knowledge, interest, and even turnout. One study concluded that “exposure to campaign advertising can produce citizens who are more interested in a given election, have more to say about the candidates, are more familiar with who is running, and are ultimately more likely to vote.”
Money doesn’t buy elections.
Money is important in elections, particularly when challenging an entrenched incumbent with name recognition and media presence. For a House candidate, the first $500,000 or so is absolutely crucial. After that, the returns diminish sharply, and each next dollar spent is worth less than the last.
However, dumping massive amounts of cash into an election certainly does not guarantee victory. Take former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who spent $144 million of her own money only to lose the California gubernatorial race to Jerry Brown. Or conservative donor Sheldon Adelson, who spent $42 million in 2012 backing nine candidates with only one of them winning. Or the Koch brothers, who spent $33.5 million on ads attacking Obama, and we know how that turned out.
True, the higher-spending candidate usually wins the election, but did he/she win because of the money? That’s a more difficult question. Donors like to back winners, and they will often give to candidates just because they think they will win. This is especially true when low contribution limits make it difficult for a single donor to make a big difference in the outcome. Rather than giving a small amount to someone who will lose anyway, they give to the leading candidate. Candidates in safe districts, districts where the margin of victory all but ensures that one party will win, still get donations. According to election guru Nate Silver, the number of landside districts has doubled since 1992. There are now 242 of them. Candidates who oppose the entrenched party or incumbent receive very few donations and party support, thus essentially ensuring that, in those 242 districts, the “bigger spending” candidate will win. But it is the demographics and gerrymandering that cause those victories, not the spending.