Why Money Still Matters

This is a guest post by political scientist and Sunlight Foundation Senior Fellow Lee Drutman.


As we continue to over-interpret the data point that was last Tuesday’s $6 billion election, one big question is what to make of the fact that the super PACs and 501c dark money groups have spent the last week pointing fingers at each other rather than celebrating – particularly the Republican groups that earned so much scrutiny from the press and so much scorn from those on the left.

Does this mean that Democrats’ reactions to Citizens United were overblown, and that money doesn’t really matter? That those of us who fret about the amount of money in politics should just get on with our lives, and care about something else?

I want to make six points points here, with elaboration to follow:

  1. Both sides raised an absurd amount of money. Much attention focused on the Republican money, but Democrats also raised remarkable sums, in many cases outspending Republicans.

  2. As long as candidates act as if money matters, it matters.

  3. As long as candidates believe money matters and raise it in ever-greater sums, big donors will have ever-greater influence and leverage.

  4. Even if money didn’t determine winners, it still determines who can run in the first place.

  5. Super PACs and political 501c groups are not going away. And they will only get savvier.

  6. “Dark money” is a still problem.

How should we conceptualize what it means for campaign funding to “matter”? The most straightforward (and hence most easily testable) view is that it matters if there is a statistically significant correlation between the amount of money spent and the likelihood of victory, controlling for all other independent relevant factors. That is, that money is predictive of outcomes. The candidate who spends more is more likely to win.

Numerous political science researchers have attempted to test this with mixed results. Alan Gerber’s 2004 article “Does Campaign Spending Work?” provides this snapshot of dissent among the academic ranks:  “Some authors argue that incumbent spending is ineffective but that challenger spending produces large gains…Others claim that challenger and incumbent spending are both effective, and still others maintain that neither incumbent nor challenger spending makes any appreciable difference…”

In other words, the answer to Gerber’s question (“Does Campaign Spending Work?”) could be summed up as: “Maybe. Sometimes. We’re not sure.” In that respect, scholarly work on campaign spending’s effect on elections resembles scholarship on campaign contributions’ impact on roll call votes – a series of inconsistent results, adding up to the conclusion that it may sometimes matter, but we’ve got no real useful handle on the where, when, and how.

Just like the old saw about advertising (“Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted. Problem is, I don’t know which half”), money spent on campaigns (and contributions) may indeed be partially wasted, and may or might not make a difference on any given occasion. But even if money only occasionally makes a difference, we still we ought to care about. After all, that’s what the participants care about – the possibility that it could matter.

So here are at least a few things we know from this election, and a few things we can speculate about based on them.

1) Both sides raised remarkable sums of money.

While much attention was focused on the Republican outside money machines, Democrats more than kept pace (perhaps even benefiting from the mistaken view that they were the campaign finance underdogs). In the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee outspent the National Republican Senatorial Committee $46.8 million to $24.2 million in the general election, though it appears that the NRSC outsourced a fair amount of its activity to Crossroads GPS and the Chamber of Commerce. In the House, the National Republican Congressional Committee did outspend the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $62.8 million to $58.0 million in the general election, but the top-spending super PAC in the House by far was the Democrats’ Majority PAC at $26.5 million.

In Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine outspent Republican George Allen, $47.2 million to $31.4 million (combining outside money and candidate money). Elizabeth Warren outspent Scott Brown in Massachusetts, $38.5 million to $32.5 million. In Ohio, Sherrod Brown outspent Josh Mandel $33.3 to $28.0 million. This year’s three most expensive congressional races all featured Democratic victories both in spending and the polls.

In the House, in the 25 races that Cook called toss-ups two months out, Republicans did outspent Democrats on average, but only by $5.0 million to $4.6 million, on average (candidate and outside spending combined). Hardly a money blowout.

If Republicans had dramatically and consistently outspent Democrats, then we might have expected Republicans to run the table, and last Tuesday’s results might suggest that Republican money did not matter.

But the funding was at near parity in most of the very competitive races, and at remarkably high levels. Given this parity, there’s not much reason to expect that money would be the most important factor in deciding who won. Given that both sides had more than enough money to get out both their messages and voters, it’s reasonable to think that other factors (national mood, campaign strategy, etc.) might have mattered more. They probably did.

2) Spending matters most because everyone thinks it matters, which is not likely to change anytime soon.

Spending in the Montana race topped $41 million, and will probably go even higher once the final tallies are in. For a state of about one million people, that’s $41 for every man, woman, and child. That has to be a record.

In the end, Democratic incumbent John Tester pulled out a narrow victory: 47.5% to 45.6%. This was actually pretty similar to the 42.7% to 41.7% edge (based on Nate Silver’s adjusted polling average) that he had had over Republican challenger Denny Rehberg two months earlier, before the majority of the spending came in. (Tester outspent Rehberg $23 million to $18 million.)

Both sides seemed locked in a classic arms race, where each ad buy had to be met with an even bigger ad buy until Montana was an endless volley of Technicolor insults, most of which did not even come from the candidates.

Maybe all the extra money mattered, and maybe it didn’t, but neither campaign wanted to take a chance. For one, on the chance that their spending could make a difference, it was worth the gamble, given that control of the Senate could be at stake. For another, neither side wanted to be the candidate at a disadvantage, and perhaps both thought they could wind up being the side with a big advantage. And given the money both sides had already sunk in, why back off?

These races are becoming the new normal, and the ability of outside groups to raise unlimited money only exacerbates this. Again, in such races, we wouldn’t expect money to have the determinative impact. There are diminishing returns to what money can buy. But once a race gets locked into the high-stakes game, it’s hard to de-escalate. And candidates who might have a competitive election will want to be prepared.

3) As the costs get higher, donors become more indispensable.

As money becomes more important, and these competitive races become even more expensive, the donors who give the money become that much more important.

If a candidate or a party needs to raise a limited sum, that candidate or party can be somewhat selective about its donors. But as the price of remaining competitive increases, one needs to be ever more sensitive to donors. A campaign can’t afford to lose anybody.

And we know pretty well that big donors are not like the rest of us. There are a limited number of big-time political high rollers who will open their pockets, and campaigns are becoming ever more reliant on them. As Martin Gilens has shown, elected officials are already more quite sensitive to the policy preferences of rich folks. This may only become more acute.

4) Money still determines who can run.

Defenders of Citizens United have been fond of arguing that super PACs made the Republican primary more competitive by allowing Gingrich and Santorum to stay in longer than they might have otherwise. This is certainly possible.

But in the counterfactual world without super PACs would also have seen a different set of Republican candidates. Perhaps Romney, who benefited from significant super PAC support, might not have even won in a world of traditional campaign fundraising, where individuals can only give $2,500, and PACs can only give $5,000.

It’s an old story that money determines who runs for office in the first place. As Rahm Emanuel once put it: “The first third of your campaign is money, money, money. The second third is money, money, money. And the last third is votes, press, and money.” In other words, if you don’t have access to individuals willing to part with large sums of money to support your candidacy, you’ve got no business running for office.

Estimates are that incumbents now spend at least a quarter (probably more) of their time while in office raising money for their re-election. The lesson of 2012 is that it costs even more to get in the game. This further limits the pool of candidates who can run, and means that incumbents will want to build an even bigger war chest. Let the fundraising games begin.

5) Nobody is going anywhere.

Super PACs, 501c’s and other major players are not going away anytime soon. Just because Karl Rove failed his now-grumbling coterie of billionaire backers does not mean that they will go home and retire to a life of fishing and golf. The more likely outcome is that they will realize (as they should) that the carpet-bombing approach to negative advertising has its limits, and move on to a new strategy. Probably, they will start copying the Democrats’ seemingly effective GOTV efforts. They may even build their own Analyst Institute.

In the meantime, it appears likely that the super PACs and 501c groups that played in the 2012 election will bide their time by engaging in lobbying, and that lawmakers up for re-election will take their requests more seriously than they might have otherwise.

If they indeed do move into lobbying, this is something new. Traditional PACS were (and still are) limited in the size of their campaigns contributions to $10,000, which is hardly enough to make or break a candidate. Super PACs have no such limits.

6) “Dark Money” is still a problem.

Crossroads GPS made at least $70.9 million in independent expenditures; Americans for Prosperity made at least $33.5 million; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made at least $32.7 million. This is only what they had to report to the FEC – what they spent in the weeks right before the election. In all likelihood, they spent significantly more.

These groups do not have to disclose their donors because they are 501c organizations. Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity are 501c(4) “social welfare” organizations; The Chamber is a 501c(6) trade association. They are regulated by the IRS, and they enjoy certain tax benefits as long as their “primary purpose” is not political.

Arcane tax and political committee legal issues aside, the rise of these types of “dark money” groups in the last two elections represents a kind of spending not seen since the pre-FECA days of Watergate – large sums of money, given in secret; significant amounts of campaign activity, funded by anonymous donors; and only very limited reporting requirements of the actual spending.

Regardless of their track record in picking winners, the secretive nature of these groups severely limits the ability of journalists and watchdogs to hold campaigns accountable for the sources of their funding, and in so doing, makes donors potentially more influential. It also fundamentally degrades the quality of our democratic conversation. To quote Justice Scalia who in Doe v. Reed: “For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously … This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”


In the end, the worst fears on the left did not come true. Democrats managed to do quite alright at the ballot box, and they kept pace with Republican spending and in many races actually outspent Republicans.

Once again, politics proved to be more complicated than a simple bidding market in which the side that spends more money gets the prize: Money did not seem to matter in the sense that it determined the outcomes. But candidates certainly behaved as if it mattered, which gave – and will continue to give – money a great deal of importance: most of all by empowering those who give large amounts of it.

The super PACs and 501c groups that were major players in the 2012 election cycle are not going anywhere. The baseline expectations for money will only rise, and groups will likely move away from television ads to newer, savvier means of shaping elections.

To the question of whether money will continue to matter, one need only ask anyone planning to run for office in 2012 if they are worried about raising enough money. I’m guessing you wouldn’t find a single no.

4 Responses to Why Money Still Matters

  1. Jacob November 15, 2012 at 12:01 am #

    I agree a lot of money was spent on this election. I do not think that money determined the winner of the election. Obama won the election because the public seemed to be satisfied with his actions. This is shown by the fact that Obama won a lot of the states he won the last time. Nonetheless, money probably contributed to swaying people, especially undecided voters, in the form of advertising and other means of campaigning.

  2. Rob November 15, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    I’ve been working on some research for a bit looking into whether all the extra spending can help make races competitive that might not otherwise have been close. The question, for me at least, is whether the money is allocated to make the race close or after it has been determined that the race is close? It seems that in the last two cycles we have seen many more competitive races in congressional districts and in Senate contests that were not previously competitive. Incumbents usually improve their numbers in their sophomore election but that hasn’t been happening in the last two cycles as much. Of course, a host of other variables could explain this. Ought to make for some interesting research.

  3. Jack November 15, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    I was intrigued by your quotation of Justice Scalia in Doe v. Reed, so I checked it out. I think you misinterpreted his point. In his concurring opinion, he distinguishes between speech and participation. The case concerns whether a group filing a petition in WA to have a law repealed by referendum can be compelled, using the Public Records Act, to release their petition signatures list.

    Scalia argues that this is more than just an act of speech – it’s an act to participate in government. So when he says “For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously … This does not resemble the Home of the Brave,” he means “campaign” in a full sense. The parallel – using elections for public office as a reference – would be a candidate running anonymously for office. The individuals who signed the petition were, for lack of a better word, “running” themselves. Thus, the distinction between speech and participation is important.

    As he says earlier in his opinion, “When a Washington voter signs a referendum petition subject to the PRA, he is acting as a legislator.” He then goes on to say: “Plaintiffs point to no precedent from this Court holding that legislating is protected by the First Amendment. Nor do they identify historical evidence demonstrating that “the freedom of speech” the First Amendment codified encompassed a right to legislate without public disclosure. This should come as no surprise; the exercise of lawmaking power in the United States has traditionally been public.”

  4. Andrea Cohen November 18, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Money will never stop being an issue in politics because of the world we live in. Because communication has expanded into different forms, politicians have felt the need to raise tons of money so they can convey their message in different forms. And traditionally, money does play a huge role in politics, as mentioned it dictates who runs, and typically it dictates who wins. This election may have came to a surprise to many Romney supporters, as many believed he raised more money. However, as mentioned both campaigns raised a lot of money, but Romney arguably got more votes than he would have if he did not spend as much money as he did. I do believe that money did make the race closer than it needed to be.

    I am not sure if I agree with your point on Super PACs because I feel a lot of people realize the negative impact they have on elections, but it may not necessarily be that easy to get rid of them, and unfortunately as you said they might go into lobbying, which would just be a scary and unfortunate thing for a lot of people, because politicians pay attention to money and the sources they come from.