money doesn’t matter in politics

It’s often said that social science proves the obvious. Often, but not always. Exhibit A: the political science literature on campaigns and election outcomes. The “obvious” belief is that money swings elections. Look at last week’s Wisconsin recall. Nearly every journalist claimed that Walker won because of outsized spending by outsiders. The Koch brothers obviously bought the election!

Well, there’s a lot of research showing that this conclusion is simply wrong, or at the very least, wildly overstated. The intuition behind the argument is that voters aren’t influenced that much by what campaigns do. Speeches, advertising, and debates don’t sway most people. At the individual level, people’s votes are mostly driven by partisanship and ideology. If you strongly identify as a Democrat, advertising won’t magically make you into a Romney voter. At the aggregate level, election outcomes tend to follow a few variables, usually economic ones. That’s because swing voters tends to care about their pocketbook and a few other issues, like foreign wars. Debates and money don’t change these facts.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that campaigns have no effect at all, they just don’t determine the final outcome in a lot of cases. Political scientist Jennifer Victor, of GMU, summarize this point at the new blog The Mischiefs of Faction:

Campaigning may help voters focus their attention (see this), be persuasive in some cases (see this), and help deliver successful message (see this). Frequently, macro-economic trends are the best predictors of presidential elections.  History tells us that all that money spent by outsiders may not affect the outcome of the election—because campaigns (generally) don’t matter (see political science research here, here, and here, for example).

So don’t get in a hizzy over Citizens United or any regulation that allows big time donors to throw money at an election. It probably doesn’t matter as much as you think.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 12, 2012 at 12:01 am

13 Responses

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  1. Why does the title of the post refer to ‘money’ and the body of the post (and Victor’s blog) to ‘campaigns’? Are these two things really interchangeable? Nothing said here deters me from the belief that Obama’s money advantage last time was a major factor in his victory, and his money disadvantage this time is a major factor in why he’s sweating this out, big time. But maybe I’m unreasonably unpersuadable on this topic.



    June 12, 2012 at 2:30 am

  2. Why do big money donors piss money away on something that has no effect? Not that I disagree about Wisconsin but this remains a bit of a puzzle, doesn’t it?


  3. Interesting point: “money doesn’t matter [much] in politics.” But it seem patently false, on the face of it: Why, if your conclusion is true, does fundraising matter at all to candidates? Why are so many wealthy donors willing to give so much, if it has little affect on outcome? Why is the Obama campaign currently in a frenzied money-raising dash, and apparently extremely concerned about being outspent by the Republican campaign? Why do corporations and very wealthy partisans invariably give huge sums of money to major campaigns?

    It is my understanding that some of the best scholarship on the subject shows precisely the opposite of your announced conclusion. Namely, that election outcomes are extremely likely to follow campaign fundraising patterns, with the most successful fundraiser having a very high likelihood of being successfully elected. Moreover, my understanding of this research is that it argues quite persuasively that coalitions of big business donors–such as the famous Koch brothers fundraising barbecues–have an extremely high impact not only on electoral success but also on policy formation, which reflects the interests of the coalitions of major funders.

    Some of the best and most convincing examples of this scholarship are Thomas Ferguson and Joel Roberts’s “Right Turn”; and, offering even more compelling research, Ferguson’s 1995 Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.”



    June 12, 2012 at 2:50 am

  4. A few responses:

    – Why do rich people give so much money if it doesn’t matter? Maybe they think it matters more than it does (they have selective memories/bad reasoning – rich people aren’t perfect!), or it’s a form of gift giving, or maybe it’s a form of influence peddling (give me money or you’ll never set foot in the white house).

    – On the winner/fundraising link. I think a lot of the argument has to do with selection and causation. People in impossible races (Republicans in San Francisco) don’t get as much money as people in tight races. Also, fundraising may reflect political skill. Better politicians attract more money.

    – The basic reason I buy the “campaigns don’t matter” literature is the literature on individual voters. A lot of it is overdetermined by ideology and partisanship.

    – If you buy Victor’s view, that campaign spending can help focus some voters, then you have a more sensible version of “money doesn’t matter.” It’s “when voters don’t know much about the options or they are highly ambivalent, spending may matter.” So for presidential elections, on the margin, extra money doesn’t matter. In a small state primary, it can matter.



    June 12, 2012 at 3:49 am

  5. look beyond 2-party democracies. decisions on election are not made by voters but at the time nominations are decided. Once nominated thereafter yes.



    June 12, 2012 at 5:20 am

  6. I’m inclined to agree with Beautype: money has an “extremely high impact not only on electoral success but also on policy formation, which reflects the interests of the coalitions of major funders.” First, you need to raise a lot of money to run (and, as Ardyahul suggests, it makes a big difference to whether you get nominated). This means that raising a lot of money gets people elected over people who can’t raise any significant amount of money.

    After the nominations are over, both sides usually have (in absolute terms) huge wads of cash to throw around, though some (in relative terms) of course have more than others. Donors fund candidates, not in order to help them win (many donors don’t really care which candidate wins), but in order to influence the formation of policy. The leverage donors have on candidates is not that the candidates need the donors to beat their rivals. They need the donors in order to stay in the race at all. (Money is a necessary but not sufficient condition of getting elected.) From there, it’s probably true that ideology and the economy decides the outcome.

    This has important consequences for our ideas about democracy and the problems with the Citizens United ruling. CU did not give corporations the power to decide elections (i.e., to decide who will win); it took the power to shape the policies that are offered as alternatives in elections away from the people. (Actually it just made this powerlessness worse.) It is important to remember that if there is a “crisis” of American democracy it must be found in the (grass)roots, not at the ballot box.

    When sociologists try to explain election outcomes in terms of why the republican beat the democrat (or vice versa), rather than why the republican-or-democrat always wins and the green or libertarian or progressive or communist is merely a sideshow, they are merely reproducing the social order they are purporting to explain. Money explains the disconnect between what the people want (and need) and the policies they are given to choose among. The “obvious belief” is not that money “swings elections”, but that it corrupts them. Corporate power buys out the whole election, not merely one of the possible outcomes. And here sociology actually obscures an obvious truth by “discovering” another one that is then glossed as non-obvious. The first, however, is true and significant. The other is true but trivial.

    (Sorry about the long comment. I don’t have time to write a short one, and I do insist on being in a hizzy about this. ;-) )



    June 12, 2012 at 7:47 am

  7. As a couple people pointed out, money may not have an effect on electoral outcomes but what about research on more specific policies? Fred McChesney’s work on rent extraction seems like an example.



    June 12, 2012 at 12:59 pm

  8. For one of the best overviews of the effects of money on politics, see Val Burris’s article in the Handbook of Politics here:

    In line with what others have said, Burris argues that money is only one of the factors that can impact campaign outcomes, though an infusion of money can shift and has shifted elections (even high information elections) when other factors are aligned. Some of the effects of money occur at the prenomination stage such that who can run for elected offices has a lot to do with the ability to raise money (as Thomas notes). One of the reasons, we don’t see too many progressive candidates running within the Democratic party. Money increases visibility and the viability of candidates. Think of Obama’s campaign and the big boost in fundraising he gets to win in Iowa and following his win in Iowa.

    Contributors note they donate to influence the outcome, but Fabio is right that there is mixed evidence on this point (though there is some evidence that it has mattered in the past).

    It’s also important to note that contributors are not only individuals, but also corporate PACs. PAC’s are mostly interested in getting access to elected officials or “sympathetic treatment for their business or industry (Burris 22). The impact might be more cumulative in nature than it is campaign specific, with large donors having most access to elected officials, narrowing the voices which elected officials hear(see Clawson, Neustadtl and Weller’s Dollars and Votes here). In the Clawson et al work, campaign contributions are a means to gain access. So money doesn’t influence how elected officials vote on a specific bill (especially when the bill is quite visible or where the public has high information), but it gives them the opportunity to influence legislation in more subtle ways or behind the scenes. So while a Democrat can vote yes to Heath Care Reform, in the thousand pages what we don’t see are the loopholes and amendments that are written into the back of legislation. Always loved the Clawson et al.’s description of U.S. laws being like Christmas trees, with lots of little ornaments attached to them. For the most part these ornaments are out of our purview, even in really highly charged highly visible pieces of legislation. And it’s money which gets campaign contributors to get the kind of access and which allows them to make their case and ultimately influence politics, even if it doesn’t always have a clearly tangible effect on campaign outcomes.

    With the advent of Citizens United, the problems of money’s influence has only been exacerbated, even if it is not clearly seen through its effects on campaign outcomes. As Steven Lukes would says, it’s the difference between first dimensional power and second and third dimensional


    Scott Dolan

    June 12, 2012 at 1:35 pm

  9. 1. If money doesn’t matter, then some savvy and powerful people are sharing a very expensive folie à deux – the politicians (e.g., incumbents who complain that they spend far more time on the phone trying raise money than they do on legislation) and the wealthy contributors.

    2. Why is it usually the people on the big-money side (not orgtheory bloggers, of course) that claim money doesn’t matter? Why would they want others to think they are fools, shelling out millions for no result?

    3. Even without TV ads, campaigns cost money. As we’ve seen in the primaries, candidates leave the race when the money runs low, not when the votes do.

    4. Citizens United is about ads, and as the graph in Victor’s post shows, it’s such a huge change that previous research might not be relevant. Drug research, for example, might show that fifty grams of some drug is harmless, but would you feel safe swallowing a kilogram of it?


    Jay Livingston

    June 12, 2012 at 3:40 pm

  10. In a society as generally uninformed and atomized as our own, campaign ads certainly do have an enormous impact on elections–and access to significant ad spots comes only through big spending, which in turn is enabled almost exclusively by attracting major donors, mostly corporations. The American public gets campaign ads drilled into their heads, and these do have a significant impact on how voters react to candidates, which is why campaigns focus on them so much.

    Look at the spending strategy this year for the swing states. Obviously the campaigns, who have most at stake in these things and who, in passing, produce extensive internal research, think that spending will affect outcome, and so do the donors. Tellingly, at the end of the last presidential election cycle, the Obama campaign won Advertising Age’s 2008 “marketer of the year” award–presumably because his enormously funded marketing campaign was judged highly successful, as the election outcome affirms.

    To sum up, I am arguing that there seems to be a high correlation between a) campaign funders and candidate policy positions; and b) relative campaign spending and electoral outcome. Business coalitions from various industry sectors come together to to vote on the policy platform they want to see implemented, and the policy variation between candidates reflects variations in policy interests between the business coalitions, for example, labor intensive industry v. capital intensive industry.

    In fact, it could be convincingly argued that actual candidate policy positions are *first* designed to attract funders, and only then reconfigured for public consumption, often by obscuring or even omitting the details of the positions themselves and focusing on trivial aspects of the candidacy such as character traits or meaningless platitudes about patriotism and change.



    June 12, 2012 at 7:10 pm

  11. “So don’t get in a hizzy over Citizens United or any regulation that allows big time donors to throw money at an election. It probably doesn’t matter as much as you think.

    I think it is important to not fall into selection problems on this side of the argument. Just because money hasn’t mattered doesn’t mean money won’t matter in the future. Citizens United changed the magnitude of money in politics in such a way that makes previous models of campaign spending on election outcomes suspect. After all, before the housing crash, most banks were willing to say that people almost never default on home loans…

    On the flip side, there is a strong case to be made that wealthy individuals and corporations see spending money as a high-risk, high-payoff investment. After all a few million dollars is pocket change to wealthy individuals (corporations), if they can support a candidate early or generously, they might get great rewards as a result including deregulation of their industry, favored nominees in relevant positions, the ear of politicians upon election.

    Finally, for those interested, the Planet Money team at NPR has been covering the influence of money in politics. The focus is more on the day-to-day aspects of money and fundraising, but still interesting and relevant to this conversation. They published a This American Life episode on the topic and discussed the influence of money in Congressional elections (generally lower information elections than Presidential elections). That is where the money advantage is really scary because even $250,000-$300,000 can be very influential on swinging close elections.



    June 13, 2012 at 12:43 am

  12. I think this post totally missed the boat. Sorry Fabio, but I think you’re misinterpreting the political science literature and failing to take into account selection effects.

    Money matters in at least two ways. First, it helps set the agenda, i.e., the issues that people talk about and consider important. A sort of old and boring, yet apparently true, finding from political science is that interest groups and lobbies are most effective in shaping the flow of ideas and issues that elected officials consider to be important. They don’t necessarily determine how a politician will vote on a particular issue (which seems to be more determined by party affiliation and public opinion), but it does shape which issues are even discussed in policy debates. If a special interest wants to make sure that a policy issue does or does not get brought up in an election season, there is no better strategy than to throw a lot of money at politicians. We don’t have the luxury of a society in which there is a grand experiment of not allowing lobbying or campaign donations, and so we don’t exactly know how much more open the debate would be in such a scenario, but there are plenty of studies, qualitative and quantitative, that demonstrate how variation in lobbying and campaign contributions affect the policy agenda. (Incidentally, there is also good evidence to suggest that this is the main mechanism through which social movements influence policymaking, and so the best way to counter the agenda control of big money is to make lots of noise and shift politicians’ attention to new issues. I should add that it’s not clear that even lots of protest will be able to overpower the agenda control of big money.)

    Second, the selection effects don’t allow us to observe the outcomes of would-be elected officials who never get enough money/campaign donations to make it out of the primaries. The political world is full of people with good ideas who didn’t pander to the right political or business elites and therefore never got beyond local primaries. Money is also a very good signal to voters of who they should be paying attention to in an upcoming election. If you’ve never heard of a politician because they don’t have the resources to get their message out to the public or are not even recognizable to the majority of voters, then there is a very low likelihood that you’ll get elected. This is a really important selection effect as it determines which politicians are even considered electable.

    Combine these two effects and money really should have an effect on national and local policy outcomes. Politicians that never make the initial money cut – i.e., that aren’t electable according to the powers-that-be that control big pockets of money (which includes everyone from private donors to business corporations to unions) – can’t get into office. And once they’re in office, politicians tend to be sensitive to the issues that those pockets of money consider important and worth pushing as policy objectives. Clearly, it’s not the only factor that matters in politics, but it’s a pretty darn important one.


    brayden king

    June 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm

  13. BTW, the statement about Citizens United seems to be pretty short-sighted to me. The issue at the center of Citizens United isn’t whether Fortune 500 firms are going to determine every major election in the coming years, it’s whether organizations should be treated as having the same political rights as human beings. We’ve come a long way from saying that organizations can sue or be sued or enter into private contracts with other actors to saying that organizations have the same free speech rights that college students have. A lot of people have hizzies about this because they find it philosophically objectionable. Organizations, as James Coleman argued so well, already have asymmetric influence in society and so to give them even more influence seems problematic to me.


    brayden king

    June 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

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