To quote the great political philosopher Cyndi Lauper, “Money changes everything.” And nowhere is that proverb more taken to heart than in a federal election, where billions of dollars are raised and spent on the understanding that money is a crucial determinant of whether or not a candidate will win.
This year, the money has been coming in and out of political campaigns at a particularly furious pace. Collectively, U.S. House candidates raised more money by Aug. 27 than House candidates raised during the entire 2014 midterm election cycle, and Senate candidates weren’t far behind. Ad volumes are up 86 percent compared to that previous midterm. Dark money — flowing to political action committees from undisclosed donors — is up 26 percent.
Presumably, all that money is going to buy somebody an election. In reality, though, Lauper isn’t quite right. Political scientists, such as Travis Ridout, professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, say there’s not a simple one-to-one causality between fundraising and electoral success. Turns out, this market is woefully inefficient. If money is buying elections a lot of candidates are still wildly overpaying for races they were going to win anyway. And all of this has implications for what you (and those big dark money donors) should be doing with your political contributions.
Overall, advertising ends up being the major expense for campaigns, said Ridout. In 2012 and 2014, the average Senate campaign spent 43 percent of its budget on ads, he told me, and the average House campaign spent 33 percent. Presidential races spend an even bigger chunk of their budgets on advertising. In 2012, for instance, ads made up more than 70 percent of President Obama’s campaign expenses and 55 percent of Mitt Romney’s.
This is a really tough thing to study, Ridout said, and it’s only getting harder as media becomes more fragmented and it’s less clear who saw what ad how many times and in what context. But it’s also something people have been studying for a long time. Driven by fears that attack ads might undermine democracy by reducing voter turnout, researchers have been looking at the impacts of negative advertising since the 1990s. And, beginning around the mid-2000s, they began making serious progress on understanding how ads actually affect whether people vote and who they vote for. The picture that’s emerged is … well … let’s just say it’s probably rather disappointing to the campaigns that spend a great deal of time and effort raising all that money to begin with.