This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on March 2, 2020.
There’s a lot more to winning elections than dominating the airwaves. Yet every election cycle it seems there’s a wealthy candidate — or two, or three — who believes he can advertise his way to success.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer became the latest in a long line of self-funding candidates to crash and burn with voters this weekend. (President Trump, who vowed to self-fund much of his 2016 campaign, ended up raising more money from small donors than any candidate in history.)
Steyer’s campaign strategy focused on two things: spending big and making a splash in South Carolina. Of the $36 million Democrats spent on television ads in the state, Steyer was responsible for more than $23 million — roughly 65%, according to tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Steyer’s ads aired on TV more than 70,000 times. No other candidate’s ads aired even 10,000 times in the state.
Despite this advertising blitz, Steyer didn’t come close to winning the state. He finished third behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The billionaire then dropped out of the race, saying he “can’t see a path where I can win the presidency.”
Candidates and observers have debated the role of self-funding candidates throughout the Democratic primary. Those discussions have often centered on the world’s ninth-richest man, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s astronomical spending is truly without precedent, and its final results are yet to be seen.
In many ways, however, Steyer’s campaign offers a better test of the ability of advertising to drive a campaign. Steyer lacks previous political experience and entered the race a far less-known figure than Bloomberg. His poor performance in South Carolina suggests that if your biggest political asset is your net worth, you’re in trouble.
Trump couldn’t resist mocking the wealthy self-funder, tweeting that Steyer had “spent more dollars for NOTHING than any candidate in history.”
The failure of self-funding candidates shows how money does and doesn’t work in politics. Because winning campaigns tend to raise more money, many people assume that having more money is what led them to victory. In reality, candidates that excite voters tend also to excite donors. And donors, like rank-and-file party members, often just want to see their party win. They will support any candidate who looks formidable.
If money could “buy” elections, wealthy individuals could self-fund their way to political success. The reality is more complicated. If voters disagree with your message or prefer one of your opponents’ records or character, spending can’t overcome that.
If campaign spending is less powerful than commonly assumed, we should revisit the laws that make it so hard for average people to finance a run for office. Since the 1970s, Congress has imposed strict limits on the amounts candidates can raise from each donor, currently $2,800 per election. The Supreme Court, however, has been clear that government can’t limit what you spend on your own campaign.
As a result, billionaire candidates can jump into a race at the last minute. But anyone who has to raise money has to get started early, plan ahead, and convince thousands (if not millions) of people to give. No wonder election campaigns seem to take longer every year.
Candidates who have to fundraise from scratch find themselves in a Catch-22. They need lots of supporters to raise enough money to get their message out, but they need to get their message out to gain lots of supporters. Many candidates don’t even make it to the earliest primary and caucus states, leaving voters with fewer choices on Election Day.
It wasn’t always this way. Americans used to be free to support candidates as much as they wanted. Candidates who saw voters being ignored could jump in the race, quickly raise money, and make an impact. In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy jumped in the Democratic primary to give a voice to the growing anti-Vietnam War movement. Despite entering the race in late November, McCarthy’s strong performance in New Hampshire helped push President Lyndon B. Johnson out of the race.
Today, our campaign finance restrictions make it nearly impossible to do what McCarthy did. Only the super wealthy get to try, and voters usually reject their efforts. We would be better off with fewer limits on campaign donations and more freedom for candidates and their supporters.