Does Campaign Spending Confuse Voters?

This is a guest post from political scientist Sean Richey.


What happens to voters when one candidate has more money to spend than another candidate? In a new article (gated, ungated), I show that skew in campaign spending—one side spending more than the other—has a troubling effect: it leads some voters to choose the candidate that least matches their views.

In every presidential election from 1972 to 2004, I drew on a large survey, the American National Election Study, that asks voters a wide range of questions about politics—demographics, party identification, views on issues, and the like.  Based on their answers and some statistical modeling, I can gauge who they are predicted to vote for and who they actually reported voting for—a technique developed by political scientists Richard Lau and David Redlawsk.  When there is a divergence from the actual and predicted vote, it suggests that voters are choosing the wrong candidate.

Voting for the wrong candidate systematically favors the better funded presidential candidate between 1972 and 2004. This tends to benefit Republican candidates: because they are generally better funded, they are able to gain about 4-5 percentage points more incorrect votes than Democratic candidates in that time, but with considerable variation between elections. I also show that the level of skew in incorrect voting has led to the incorrect candidate being elected in three out the last nine elections (or 2 of 9, if I do not include 2000).

This relationship between spending imbalances and voting behavior has important implications for campaign finance reform.  Various reforms, like the Comprehensive Clean Elections reforms that have been implemented at the state level, seek to equalize spending by candidates by matching funds throughout the campaign. If one candidate starts spending more, the other candidate gets more money from the state government. My research suggests that this might not only make elections more competitive, but enable voters to make choices more in line with their underlying values and beliefs.

7 Responses to Does Campaign Spending Confuse Voters?

  1. Anonymous Coward September 28, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    I’d be leery of clearly drawing the causal arrow from campaign money to incorrect votes. It seems just as possible to me that Aaron A. Aaronson might have more campaign money than Snidely Whiplash because Aaronson has more net popular support.

  2. kharris September 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    I realize this is not up to the standard employed here, but the 4%-5% advantage Republicans enjoy because people vote the wrong way sound a bit like the premise of “What’s Wrong With Kansas?”. There are a number of other explanations for voters voting against their own interests which would explain what’s wrong with Kansas, and why Republicans get votes that one would not predict from surveys of policy preferences. Again, I realize it doesn’t fit with the narrative here, but Republicans work very hard to drive wedges, to pick off angry, poor white folk, to exploit bigotry and non-mainstream social ideas. It might be worth exploring whether Republicans are behaving rationally, as the economists would say. If they are spending resources to drive wedges, exploit bigotry and the like, don’t we have to admit the possibility that they know their business and are having an effect?

  3. rickme September 29, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    A quibble- you state that in clean election states “If one candidate starts spending more, the other candidate gets more money from the state government.”
    I thought a supreme court decision (Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett , 2011) outlawed such trigger mechanisms

    • Sean Richey October 3, 2012 at 9:07 am #

      Thank you for mentioning this, and yes you are correct. I mentioned this decision in a longer version of this post that was edited due to size constraints. I know some reformers are trying to devise similar systems that meet the criteria laid out in this decision, so perhaps there are more life in these reforms. Anyway, this research suggests that it is worth pursuing ways to equalize spending for reasons of citizen competence as well as competitiveness.

  4. Glenn Wright October 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    So these people vote for the “wrong” candidate according to…what standard? Do you know what their priorities were among the various issues? Is it possible that many of them would rather vote for, say, a party they perceived as generally competent at dealing with economic issues, even if they disagreed with that party on policy positions? Assuming that peoples’ votes should be driven by policy issues and that any deviation from that is an indication that the media is misleading them…that’s a *huge* methodological assumption that I’m surprised anyone who even think to make.

    • idiot October 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

      Well, it could be possible that each party is equally competent, but all that advertising makes it seem one party is more competent than the other…when in fact they aren’t. So the spending would still be potentially misleading.

      Of course, some people might argue that a good fundraising operation is itself an indication of competence (I believe Obama made this argument in 2008).

    • Sean Richey October 3, 2012 at 8:58 am #

      Thanks for your comment. The voting correctly measure uses many factors including incumbent approval etc., so it is not just policy agreement. By including these non-policy factors, the measure tries to account for what you are describing. In case you want more information on the coding, it is described in-depth in the paper, and in much more detail in the Lau and Redlawsk book/paper.