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Let’s Demystify the Power of Money in Politics

Despite skyrocketing campaign spending, no one’s sure all that effort really works.

April 17, 2014

I have been writing about campaign reform for more than four decades—and never has the outlook seemed as bleak as it does right now. Citizens United, the rise of Super PACs, McCutcheon and the pandering by both parties for the billionaire vote all have recreated the Gilded Age (minus its great architecture).

What is chilling is that 2014 may be soon remembered as the good old days. At least, the Roberts Court has not yet overturned contribution limits in individual federal races. And Mitch McConnell, the ferocious foe of McCain-Feingold and other reform legislation, has not yet been elevated to Senate majority leader.

So what is to be done? Take up another quixotic cause like making Esperanto the universal language? Write hopeful books with titles like The Lighter Side of Oligarchy? Root for a scandal so large that it will make Watergate seem like a dustup triggered by overdue library fines?

Let me make an unorthodox suggestion about how to approach the current money-mad political environment. Reality forces us to grudgingly accept that the courts will continue to empower major donors and Congress in the short term will probably not even strengthen the disclosure requirements. So about the only hope is to figure out a way to limit the influence of six- and seven-digit donors over the politicians whom they support.

Would Sheldon Adelson and his well-heeled counterparts in both parties receive the same deference if their money did not change the odds of their favored candidate winning?

Political insiders and campaign reformers assume a level of causation between money and election returns that is not supported by the available evidence. Yes, the better-financed candidate won in 91 percent of all Senate and House races in 2012. But that number includes lopsided contests in one-party districts and races in which under-funded candidates waged campaigns devoid of flair and originality.  

Serious candidates who raise a threshold amount of money can prevail in November, especially if they wage smart campaigns. The truth—largely ignored by the press and political consultants—is that most money spent on political campaigns is probably wasted. Or, at least, no one can prove that it actually works. As journalist Sasha Issenberg writes in his trailblazing 2012 book on campaign technology, The Victory Lab, “The tools available to political operatives can do little to explain what makes someone vote—and few of the people toiling inside campaign war rooms seemed disturbed by this gap in their knowledge.”

Democrats are currently panicked that Americans for Prosperity, the leading arm of the Koch brothers’ political empire, has already spent $34 million targeting shaky Senate incumbents. Majority Leader Harry Reid has developed the habit of denouncing GOP Super PACs in apocalyptic speeches on the Senate floor: “The Koch brothers and other moneyed interests are influencing politics in a way not seen in generations.”

But are the Koch brothers really influencing politics—or just merely squandering money at the behest of their campaign consultants? Although few in politics will admit it, a case can be made that early TV advertising does not influence voting behavior. In the 2010 California gubernatorial race, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman outspent Jerry Brown by a nearly five-to-one margin. But Brown romped home with 54 percent of the vote, in part, because he held his fire until the last weeks of the campaign when he matched Whitman dollar for dollar in TV advertising. 

An aberration? Not necessarily.

Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck closely examined the connection between early advertising in the 2012 presidential campaign and the poll ratings of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As they explain in their book on the 2012 race, The Gamble, the impressions created by TV ads have the life expectancy of a fruit fly. Sides and Vavreck write, “We found no statistically meaningful impact of ads aired the five days before the respondents were interviewed. Only the ads aired on the day closest to the interview mattered.”

I don’t want to carry this contrarian argument to the point of absurdity. Television advertising during crocus season may indeed work in certain types of races but not in presidential campaigns. We simply don’t know. But most of the orthodoxies of politics are based on hunch and tradition rather than rigorous research. The financial incentives built into campaigns (most of the fees that consultants earn come from media spending) also help guarantee that the mantra of modern politics remains, “When in doubt, run more TV ads.”

The rise of social media may have already made it possible to win a major political race without any television advertising. (Direct mail might be the way to reach voters who are not obsessed with Facebook and Twitter). Certainly, by the end of the decade, successful candidates can find ways to wean themselves from the expensive addiction to 30-second spots.  

The problem is that most candidates lack the expertise to exploit this changed political terrain. A smart recent article in Ad Age by Kate Kaye points out that most Democratic candidates are ill-equipped to take advantage of the vast voter data base compiled by the 2012 Obama campaign. As Kaye puts it, “There’s a limited pool of practitioners who know how to put all this stuff to use for the more than 6,000 races this year.”

What is really needed (philanthropists and foundations please take note) is a bipartisan research effort to discover how to run for major political office with less money.

One approach would be to fund political scientists to conduct in-depth research (akin to what Sides and Vavreck did in the presidential race) on which TV commercials produce votes and which spots simply enrich the admakers. Training sessions might instruct campaign operatives in both parties on how best to use inexpensive social media and how to harness sophisticated voter files. Another avenue might be a major initiative to explore the best ways to maximize small-donor online fund-raising.

All these things can, of course, be carried out within a partisan framework, but they don’t have to depend on political parties. The goal is not to elect a certain type of candidate, but rather to demystify the power of money in politics. If smart campaigns can consistently defeat Super PACs, then wealthy donors may decide to spend more money on jewelry and real estate—and less on politics.

(Image: Flickr/Patrick Hoesly)

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.