David Brooks and Money in Elections

Josh is impressed with David Brooks for this:

Political scientists have tried to measure the effectiveness of campaign spending using a variety of methodologies. There is no consensus in the field. One large group of studies finds that spending by incumbents makes no difference whatsoever, but spending by challengers helps them get established. Another group finds that neither incumbent nor challenger spending makes a difference. Another group finds that both kinds of spending have some impact.

I too was pleased by this piece because I agree with Brooks that the role of money in elections is exaggerated. However, I don’t think his description of the political science literature on this issue is correct.

In part of the piece, Brooks looks at how much is spent by each party in any election as a whole, and then at how the election turned out. That’s too high a level of aggregation and it obscures some of the importance of money. In individual congressional races, expenditures by candidates are certainly associated with outcomes. I think a fair description of the actual consensus is this from Gary Jacobson’s The Politics of Congressional Elections (buy it here!):

Challengers (and especially candidates for open seats who face well-financed opponents) rarely win without spending a great deal of money. Even rarer is a losing incumbent who might plausibly blame defeat on a shortage of funds. Moreover, there are solid reasons challengers should get a larger share on their spending than do incumbents. However, there are also good reasons for believing that, under some circumstances, the incumbent’s spending should affect the outcome as well. (p. 49)

In other words, the major debate is not over whether money matters, it’s over the relative impact of incumbent and challenger spending.

There are other questions where political science doesn’t have a solid answer, as far as I know. One is whether independent expenditures matter over and above the (much larger) spending by candidates and parties, so Brooks’s skepticism regarding these expenditures isn’t necessarily contradicted by any evidence.

Nevertheless, the consensus, as I see it, is that money does in fact matter.

10 Responses to David Brooks and Money in Elections

  1. nathan burroughs October 20, 2010 at 11:25 am #

    I’ve just finished doing some research on campaign spending in non-incumbent House primaries, where it seems to have quite a strong effect.

  2. Dan Tarrant October 20, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    “Nevertheless, the consensus, as I see it, is that money does in fact matter.”

    Go out on a limb there, Dr. Sides.

  3. Clyde Wilcox October 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    There has been very little research that tries to include independent expenditures, in part because much of what is spent is not reported in a consistent way.

    But often the spending by independent groups is greater than that by candidates, so this results in some bad model specs.

  4. James October 20, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    I think the more accurate statement (rather than simply that money matters) is that political science has uncovered considerable complexity. Money seems to be influential, but in a threshold, ratio, or conditional way. In other words, its relative to how much the incumbent spends, the marginal effect per dollar changes in a non-linear fashion, and/or the effect of spending is conditional on party, popularity, type of spending, etc.

    Out of curiosity, can anyone direct me to literature that has examined the effect of spending as a ratio between the two (or more) candidates/parties?

  5. Joshua Tucker October 20, 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    @ James: Although not on the US, when I was preparing to write “my post”:http://www.themonkeycage.org/2010/10/thank_you_david_brooks.html this morning, I came across this _Annual Review of Political Science_ “Review of the comparative literature on political finance”:http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.polisci.10.080505.100115?prevSearch=all%253A%2528campaign%2Bfinance%2529&searchHistoryKey=. Here’s the abstract:

    bq. This article reviews efforts to study the impact of money in politics in democracies outside of the United States. In recent years, democracies around the world have begun to publish increasing amounts of data on candidate and party finance. Although much of this information is partial, and some of it is even deliberately misleading, it has nevertheless opened up many new opportunities for researchers to systematically examine the role of money in politics. The development of theories about the origins and impact of political finance regimes and regulations has not kept pace with the newly emerging data. As a result, the field offers increasing scope for researchers to make policy-relevant contributions. Much of the recent research in this area asks how much, and in what ways, the amounts and sources of funding matter. Do either or both of these influence elections or other political outcomes? This article begins by reviewing attempts to answer these questions, then considers some of the promising new areas of investigation in this field.

  6. andy October 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    The evidence, from Jacobson, is that LACK of money matters. Challengers lose (over 99.8% of the time) if they do not spend significant funds. Their chances of winning go up as they spend more. So, money can not buy victory; lack of money ‘buys’ defeat.

  7. Anonymous Coward October 21, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    It’s not even that simple. Most of those challengers would lose even if they spent the entire GDP of France on their election, just because they’re terrible, terrible candidates.

  8. Nick Seabrook October 21, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    @James – I published an article in APR earlier this year looking at the effect of the ratio between the Democratic and Republican candidates’ spending in state legislative elections.

    I find that the impact of money is conditional upon a number of other factors:


  9. carl pinkele October 21, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    campaign $’s are a good place to noticed the difference between pols and political science…the former clearly see $’s as being very important and extraordinarily necessary for enhancing or in determining electoral success. why the gap in perceptions?

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