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What’s the Difference Between an Election and an Almond?

A recent New York Times Magazine article inaccurately explains the impact big money has on election outcomes.

December 10, 2014

In the New York Times Magazine, Binyamin Appelbaum argues that there’s not much money in elections, and spending doesn’t really affect election outcomes anyway.


Maybe somebody should tell that to the members of Congress who spend four hours a day fundraising. Or to Georgia Democratic Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn, who was told to spend 80 percent of her time raising money. Or to the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016 who’ve already visited casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Or to current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who reportedly told donors to give a super PAC run by some of his former top staff members that can take unlimited contributions. Or to soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is setting up an operation to leverage big contributions to protect his party’s control of the higher chamber.

Appelbaum urges calm, telling us that Americans spend more on almonds than congressional elections. Maybe so, but imagine we paid for almonds the way we pay for elections. A tiny percentage of Americans would buy up the great majority of the almonds to do whatever they wanted with them, leaving crumbs for everyone else. A small fraction of the U.S. population – 0.2 percent – contributes more than $200 to elections, but they account for more than two-thirds of money spent.

So when politicians spend all that time and energy fundraising, who are they talking to? Whose concerns and ideas do they hear? Who do they want to keep happy and generous? The same few people who can afford to give the most.

Political scientists have shown that what poor and middle income people want has almost no effect on policy. The preferences of the wealthy dictate what government decision makers do. Of course there are many reasons for this, including lobbying, but it’s obvious that election spending is a big part of the problem. For one thing, lobbyists admit that they use campaign contributions to get what their clients want out of Washington.

Appelbaum cites research showing that an extra $100,000 in a congressional race doesn’t have much effect on the outcome. They key word there, though, is “extra.” Although marginal differences in spending won’t swing election outcomes, a candidate who doesn’t raise a sufficient amount of money is virtually guaranteed to lose. As a result, candidates who don’t have connections to wealthy donors may never bother to run, no matter how qualified they are. And the “arms race” mentality tells candidates not to let the other guy get too far ahead in spending. That’s why candidates, including incumbent officials, are falling all over each other to raise money.

While it’s true that the amount spent on all the congressional elections together hasn’t changed much in recent years, that fact obscures the reality that spending is highly concentrated in the competitive races that will decide control of a chamber of Congress. Donors don’t just want to buy the gratitude of a candidate, they want the gratitude of the party in power.

A healthy republic needs elected officials who represent the public, not a tiny slice of rich donors. We would be much closer to that if Appelbaum’s comparison actually were apt, and we paid for elections the way we pay for almonds, with everybody able to afford a satisfying amount. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)