If you have read what political scientists have to say about the relationship between campaign contributions and elections, you probably know that the answer is “it’s complicated.” But with presidential nominations, it is especially unlikely that having the most campaign money will matter. When billionaire Michael Bloomberg announced that he was running for the Democratic nomination for president, enough people were worried about the influence of campaign spending that I decided to review the evidence.
None of this is based on original research, but it is grounded in political science research.
Candidates obviously need money for necessary campaign expenses, such as traveling, consultants, focus groups, field headquarters, and advertisements. A candidate with a large enough war chest may discourage potential rivals from entering the race, knowing that others will always be able to respond with more advertisements. Receiving ample contributions can be a sign of being a serious, well-managed campaign rather than the cause of electoral success. While voters seldom remember ads for long, failing to respond to ads can allow an opposing campaign to define you. For example, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $3million attacking Senator Elizabeth Dole in 2008 every early in the cycle. The challenger, Kay Hagan, gained credibility and had time to raise money before Dole responded.
But campaign advertisements are most effective in contests when candidates are poorly known, and they are less effective in presidential races with well-known candidates. It is very difficult for any message – advertising or otherwise – to change the minds of people who already have set opinions. People practice motivated reasoning to sustain the beliefs they already have. In elections with well-known candidates, voters tend to know the candidates and how they will vote. That was clearly the case in 2016, where people had known Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for decades. Many candidates are well-known in the current presidential election, including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. And both name recognition and negative affect are high for Bloomberg. G. Elliot Morris tweeted that Bloomberg is the second most unpopular person in politics today. Bloomberg’s money is too late to discourage challengers in a race where 18 Democrats are already running.
Presidential candidates need to show they are broadly acceptable to different party factions in the primaries. This is why some studies find that endorsements show a stronger effect than money on votes in presidential primaries. Having been a Republican, Bloomberg is already at a disadvantage in a process that rewards partisan team-players. Furthermore, his strict policing as mayor of New York City will make it difficult to win support among civil rights groups. His ample history of statements about women will make it difficult to win support among feminists. His overall moderate stance on economic issues are probably a liability in 2019, when relatively neoliberal candidates like Cory Booker have moved left on health care and the minimum wage. Bloomberg’s support for “nanny state” policies like soda taxes alienates many neoliberals, for that matter.
Time and time again, candidates who are a poor fit for the currently constituted party factions flounder even when they are top fundraisers. In the year before the 2008 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani raised $91 million and $48 million, respectively. The following year, they received 13% and 0% of the delegates and John McCain received 73%. McCain only raised $31 million that year, but he had the endorsements. Giuliani’s support for gun control, gay rights, and abortion rights made him suspect among the party’s socially conservative voters. Even in 2012, Rick Santorum beat Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, simply by driving the “Chuck Truck” across the state to visit 69 pizza restaurants. In 1980, John Connally raised $11 million to Ronald Reagan’s $8 million, but Reagan received 60 percent of the delegates and Connally received less than 1 percent. Multimillionaire Steve Forbes spent almost as much as Bob Dole in 1996 and received .1 percent of the delegates. In this election cycle, Tom Steyer spent $47 million to peak at 3 percent support in New Hampshire thus far.
It’s unclear that money would be a deciding factor even in a tight race between two candidates. In 2008, Hillary Clinton spent more money than Barack Obama in the tightest primary battle in memory, but Obama ultimately obtained more delegates.
There is a more plausible case to be made for the role of spending in congressional elections, where messages can sway voters on candidates they do not know about (Jacobson 2009). This is especially true for open-seat races and challengers to incumbents.
Even in congressional elections, the role of campaign contributions from moneyed interests may be less pernicious than its critics often allege. A 2003 study summarizing other studies to date find that an additional $60,000 in corporate PAC spending changes a legislator’s votes by 2 points on a 100-point scale. As a point of comparison, changing the party of a district’s representatives changes votes by 30 points on such a scale. There are some celebrated exceptions like sugar subsidies where contributions seem to earn enormous returns on low profile issues, but if these were common, more corporations would use them. Any Fortune 500 company would have a PAC and spend the maximum amount. As of 2003, only 60 percent had PACs and only 4 percent donated the legal maximum. States that have adopted public financing of campaigns have not passed more liberal policies than states with traditional campaign funding.
The impact of Citizens United, which occurred after the 2003 study, is also exaggerated. Wealthy individuals have helped losing candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum stay in races longer than they would have otherwise. But as Lee Drutman pointed out, corporations have to worry about losing customers if they donate to the wrong SuperPAC’s. They might also make an enemy out of candidates who lose. The $389 million in corporate contributions during the 2013-2014 cycle might sound like a lot, but consider that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides cost $379 million to make in 2011. From 1998-onward, corporations spent 13 times as much on lobbying as campaign contributions. With lobbying, you can save overworked and impressionable young staffers time by doing their research for them. It’s less likely to attract anyone’s notice and more likely to succeed in incremental gains.
The past doesn’t always predict the future, as the 2016 Republican primaries showed us. I also don’t want the takeaway from this blog to be “money doesn’t matter in campaigns” or “we needn’t worry about moneyed interests in Washington, D.C.” Rather, many people are overrating the importance of money in campaigns, especially presidential nominations. While you need to have *enough* money to compete, having the most money will probably not be the deciding factor in a tight race for the nomination. No amount of money will save a campaign that otherwise doesn’t have potential, and this most likely describes Bloomberg’s place in the Democratic primaries.