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Candidate Trumps Money

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jul 10, 2012

After Republican Governor Scott Walker won the Wisconsin recall, many liberals blamed the loss on the Republican financial advantage. In fact, many people look at the large, undisclosed donations to the Super PACs and understandably fear that money is corrupting our democracy. And while it is true that a politician cannot win without enough money to run an effective campaign, candidate quality, message, and incumbent and presidential performance have a greater impact on outcomes. To see this, let’s look at some facts.

First, candidates matter more than fundraising. Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination because he was the least flawed of a set of flawed candidates and not because of his fundraising advantage. If money alone made a difference, Newt Gingrich’s Super PAC that spent $20 million would have resulted in better than twelve 3rd place and sixteen 4th place finishes. In fact, Gingrich and his Super PAC outspent both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul but Gingrich did worse.

Second, campaign money follows the candidate. Contributors are strategic and don’t waste money on lost causes. Rather they give money to candidates that can win. Quality candidates are usually office holders who are well-known, have a base of electoral support, are good fits with their constituency, and politically skilled. For example, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) will cruise to reelection because he is a seasoned politician who fits the state ideologically. Because of these advantages, he has raised over $12 million and his closest competitor has raised $58,000. If Corker was weaker, a strong opponent would emerge and the fundraising and spending will be much closer as in Corker’s 2006 Senate race against Harold Ford, Jr.

Third, ads run by outside groups, such as advocacy groups like Super PACs, do not alter the outcome of elections because candidate spending is more potent. According to federal law, media outlets must charge candidates the lowest available rate while outside groups can be charged the premium rate. Consequently, outside spending group ads are about 50% more expensive than candidate ads. This difference means candidates spend less and reach more people and thus exert a greater influence on voters. Moreover, outside groups only target competitive races which mean that outside groups on both sides are involved and basically cancel each other out. Looking at the 25 races with the most outside spending in 2010, only two have lopsided partisan differences and those were states where outside groups played a role in the primary election with mixed results.

Fourth, contrary to conventional wisdom outside spending generally favors Democrats. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside spending favored Democrats in each election since 1998 until 2010. In fact, the Democratic Party was the largest outside spender and a liberal group the largest non-party spender in three of the last four elections.

These results suggest that voter intensity matters more than party. In 2004, 2006, and 2008, Democrats were more upset about the direction of the country and raised more money while Republicans were more motivated in 2010. Currently, Republicans lead in outside spending in 2012 but most of that has been directed toward selecting a nominee. Outside spending should offset each other in the general election.

So money matters to an extent, but money can’t overcome a good candidate with a strong message and record in a good political environment.

This article originally appeared in the June 22, 2012 edition of The Jackson Sun