Where is the proof that money can buy elections?

Yesterday I was talking to my cousin Thomas, a resolute pessimist, about the upcoming election. He asked, “Is there any hope?”

I’m afraid I snapped at him. (Optimists can snap, you know. We don’t bite but we snap.) His response was to gloom over how much money was going into the election, and I said, “There is no evidence that money can buy elections.”

Today, I decided to fact check myself on that. Has anyone — I mean anyone credible — done a research study on the subject?

It’s easy enough for data collectors to add up how much money goes into each race, and learn who wins those races. But has someone designed a protocol for analyzing cause and effect here?

I thought about when I worked at Paramount Pictures, and about whether money which the company poured into advertising and promoting our films was worth it. I got an answer from my friend Warren Lieberfarb: What sells a film best is a friend coming up to you, grabbing you by the lapels and saying, “You’ve GOT TO SEE THIS MOVIE!”

Peer pressure, I suppose it’s called.

But I don’t know whether peer pressure affects elections any more than big money does.

So I did my own research, i.e., I Googled “evidence whether money buys elections.” I came up with a 2018 article from 538, “How Money Affects Elections.”

An odd article but really fascinating. You read a section subtitled something like “The candidate who spends the most money usually wins,” but the rest of the section disputes the title. Because, as the article points out, money is attracted to someone who is perceived as going to win. Where does that perception come from? Well, polls mostly. And what is evaluated as “insider info.” That is to say, very rich people want to put money into candidates which “insiders” say can win.

But who are those “insiders”? Newt Gingrich? Karl Rove? Mitch McConnell?

Presumably, all that money is going to buy somebody an election. In reality, though, [it] isn’t quite right. Political scientists 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.


That’s not to say money is irrelevant to winning, said Adam Bonica, a professor of political science at Stanford who also manages the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections. But decades of research suggest that money probably isn’t the deciding factor in who wins a general election, and especially not for incumbents.

But wait. What about all those TV ads we keep seeing as the election draws near.

Advertising — even negative advertising — isn’t very effective

This is a big reason why money doesn’t buy political success. Turns out, advertising, the main thing campaigns spend their money on, doesn’t work all that well.

Has anyone done a thorough, valid study of the effect of money on elections?

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.

So. Money may have an effect on an election but only if the candidate himself has been positively affecting his chances in the election.

And until a political scientist does a solid study of money vs elections, I’ll be sticking to my idea. Money can’t buy elections.


Oh, and polls? Here’s the little story I related a few years ago about polls:

The original British TV series, House of Cards, starring the perfectly wonderful, slimy, sexily evil Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, had several sequels. In the second, To Play the King, Urquhart has finagled and, yeah, murdered his way to becoming Prime Minister. He retains a brilliant (and beautiful) pollster, Sarah Harding, as an advisor.

The scene embedded in my brain: Urquhart (pronounced “Irkit,” in case you want to read this out loud), is having political problems. If I remember correctly, they’re due to his government’s racist policies about which protests and riots have sprung up. His popularity is fading fast.

What to do? He might have to dissolve his government and call for elections. But Sarah has another idea. “We’ll do a poll,” she says.

“But won’t the results be bad for me?” Urquhart argues.

“Oh no,” says Sarah. Slyly. “Getting the results we want depends entirely on the questions we ask.”


What definitely affects the outcome of an election? Voting. We don’t vote per the polls. We don’t vote with the polls. Forget the polls, forget Citizens United.

The only united citizens that matter are we citizens, as we unite to vote.

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