Campaign Finance 101: Money Doesn’t Buy Votes

Tomorrow is the midterm election, and, if tradition holds, Americans will be inundated Wednesday with countless newspaper stories indicating that this midterm is “the most expensive in U.S. history.” In light of that, it seems pertinent to remind everyone – once again – perhaps the most important fact to remember when considering all debates regarding campaign finance and the regulation of political speech:

Money does not buy votes.

There have been reams of academic literature devoted to this topic (I recommend this or this), but we do not need a doctorate in political science to understand this concept. In fact, during the months of primaries leading up to this midterm election, we have already seen examples galore of big spending failing to translate into electoral victories.

Remember Eric Cantor? It seems like ancient history, but in the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, the former House Majority Leader and fundraising phenom lost to the economics professor and political tyro, David Brat. Cantor lavished more than $5 million on his campaign compared to under $200,000 by his opponent. He famously spent almost as much on steakhouse dinners than Brat spent altogether. Cantor also spent roughly half of Brat’s entire campaign spending on an internal poll by McLaughlin & Associates that showed him winning by 30 points. Many theories have been proposed for why Mr. Cantor lost (his support for immigration reform, anti-establishment anger among the GOP base, and a lack of old fashioned voter outreach in his district, to name a few), but what is undeniably true is that Cantor was unable to turn his enormous cash advantage into support at the polls.

While Cantor’s loss was the most prominent example that money cannot buy votes, it was hardly unique. Republican Joni Ernst is currently locked in a tight race with Democrat Bruce Braley for an Iowa Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Tom Harkin. But before she got to the big show, Ernst beat out Mark Jacobs, an executive for Reliant Energy, in the state’s GOP primary. Jacobs learned an expensive lesson that you cannot buy Iowa voters. He spent almost $3 million of his personal fortune – about four times what Ernst spent – and received just 18 percent of the vote.

The uber-wealthy’s failure to translate their affluence into elected office is an oft-repeated tale in American politics, and Jacobs unsuccessful campaign in Iowa was just one example of many similar failures this primary season. In Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, Mike Turner, a 27-year-old State Senator who financed his campaign with his family’s personal fortune, finished fourth in the primary. Voters preferred Steve Russell, a former lieutenant colonel who served in the Iraq War, despite the $600,000 that Turner provided to his own campaign – much of which funded a slew of negative ads. Russell is a lock to win the seat tomorrow.

Across the country, a similar story played out in New York’s 1st Congressional District on Long Island. There, despite $2 million in self-financing, former SEC attorney George Demos lost to another veteran of the Iraq War, Lee Zeldin, in the GOP primary. Zeldin is currently engaged in a tough battle with incumbent Representative, Tim Bishop.

Stop me when this sounds familiar. In Michigan’s 4th Congressional District, over $3 million in contributions to his own campaign “bought” Republican businessman Paul Mitchell just 37 percent of the vote against State Senator Paul Moolenaar. Moolenaar is expected to win the general election tomorrow.

I could go on and on. This primary season, candidates have demonstrated the myriad factors necessary to achieve electoral success beside money. We have seen outspent winners benefit from celebrity (Clay Aiken won in NC-2), endorsements (in the Detroit area-district, MI-11, the endorsement from the AFL-CIO played a significant role), geography (in TX-36, one candidate’s home being outside the district was a primary point of contention in the campaign), and incumbency (in TN-4, the scandal-ridden incumbent Scott DesJarlais won despite being significantly outspent).

The intention here is not to suggest that money is inconsequential in elections. On the contrary, money enables those running for office to engage with their constituents, communicate their policy ideas, and voice their opinions about their challengers. Money also facilitates a vigorous and fruitful debate that embodies the heartbeat of election battles in our democracy. But we need to remember that money, while essential to campaigns, does not win elections. The races that will be decided tomorrow will be decided at the ballot box; they were not settled six months ago at a campaign fundraiser.

In the debate over campaign finance regulations, this point is crucial to remember. Many characteristics that politicians possess help them win elections. Just this primary season, candidates have been aided by their own celebrity, incumbency, name recognition, local endorsements, national endorsements, personal charisma, smart advertising, and geographic luck. When regulators attempt to “level the playing field” by instituting strict campaign contribution limits and other restrictions on political speech, they are not “equalizing elections.” Instead, they put their thumbs on the proverbial scale in favor of other inherently unequal factors.

Those who vote tomorrow will vote for whichever candidate they like best. And when American citizens are voting, remember that no matter how many political ads the candidates have run, they haven’t bought anyone’s vote.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.