While there were many interesting results in this year’s 2022 midterms, the claim that money can simply buy elections was notably dealt another serious blow. In several races this cycle, from the high-profile gubernatorial contests to down ballot contest, politicians were able to pull out victories, despite being largely outspent.
The reason why this happened is straightforward: Money is vital for campaigns to speak and spread their message to voters. But money cannot simply buy political success because sometimes voters don’t like the message candidates have. Ultimately voters, not campaign spending, decide who wins and who loses.
This post looks at some of the ways that spending did not lead to success in 2022:
Candidates overcome spending deficits
- Georgia Governor’s Race:
- Ohio Senate Race:
JD Vance ran against Tim Ryan for the Ohio Senate seat but only spent about 25% of what Ryan spent and still won. Ryan spent about $56 million and Vance only spent about $14.1 million.
- Florida Senate Race:
- New York 17th Congressional House Race:
Challenger Mike Lawler only spent $1.45 million to the incumbent and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Maloney who spent $6.7 million, yet Lawler claimed victory. This race not only involved a major upset where a challenger beat a powerful incumbent, the incumbent spent nearly five times as much and still lost.
- New Jersey 7th Congressional House Race
In another major upset where the heavily outspent challenger won; incumbent Tom Malinowski spent $8.9 million to challenger Tom Kean’s $4.4 million. Kean was able to win against an incumbent who spent more than double what he did.
This election cycle was not kind to wealthy candidates who self-funded their campaigns. Insider reports that 16 very wealthy self-funding candidates, such as TV star Mehmet Oz, spent $223 million of their own money but ended up losing their races. This is a costly lesson to self-funding candidates that the message matters and having a lot of money to spread a message does not automatically mean that the voters will like the message. The continued failure of self-funded candidates, which IFS has highlighted before, speaks to another truth about money in politics. Despite being widely maligned, fundraising, not money, correlates with electoral success. Perhaps this is because donors are willing to give to candidates who have popular messages or are likely electoral victors. Perhaps candidates are able to sharpen their political acumen and discover a successful message by meeting supporters in fundraisers. Regardless, self-funders skip this important step on the campaign trail, and it regularly costs them at the ballot box.
Spending Doesn’t Buy Ballot Measures Either
Just as with candidates, groups supporting and opposing ballot measures must actually persuade voters the measure is good or bad and cannot rely on spending itself to produce a win. Take California’s Proposition 26, which was a measure to legalize sports betting on tribal lands. Proponents of the legislation spent a whopping $120 million and outspent groups opposing the measure, who spent $42 million, by almost 3:1. Nevertheless, Proposition 26 was defeated by voters by a very large margin.
Some, like the organization OpenSecrets, will argue that cases like these are outliers. After all, 94.4% of U.S. House races and 90% of senate races this cycle were won by the bigger spender. OpenSecrets claims that if you spend big you increase your chance of winning big.
These insinuations that money causes political victories are backward. Money will follow candidates who are already well equipped with a message that will appeal to voters. Rather than causing candidates to win, money flowing to candidates is an indication by others that they think the candidate will be successful.
Despite popular misconceptions, this reality is well-understood by academics. One study reviewing the impact of money on politics found that “political expenditures are rarely pivotal in determining election outcomes.” Others looked at the differences in effects between spending by incumbents and challengers and found that incumbent spending had very minimal effects on vote share but are less sure about challenger spending.
Challenger spending having more of an impact makes sense if you understand campaign spending not as the end goal of the campaign but as a process for producing persuasive speech. Eating one candy bar is nice, but having a 50th candy bar is much less nice. Likewise, the first dollar you spend communicating to voters is much more effective than the 50 millionth dollar you spend. Incumbents already have name recognition, and many voters know their stance on issues. However, it is vital for challengers without the same level of name recognition or voter knowledge on their positions to use money to get their message out.
The Institute for Free Speech has time and time again pointed out that money cannot buy election victories. The 2022 midterms once again demonstrate that this oft-repeated truism, just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.