Politics & Policy

What Money Can’t Buy: Elections

Eric Cantor (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Contribution limits protect incumbents more than they do voters.

As 44 senators continue to advocate amending the First Amendment to blunt the supposedly insurmountable influence of money in politics, the House of Representatives’ second-best fundraiser outspent his challenger 26 to 1 and lost his primary election. The defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) by relative unknown Dave Brat provides an embarrassing bit of reality for those who claim that democracy has been replaced with oligarchy.

According to Open Secrets, Eric Cantor’s $5.447 million in funds raised in the current election cycle was surpassed only by the money raised by Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). If the second-best fundraiser in the House can lose a primary to a challenger who has only $200,000 to spend, no candidate can rest assured that money alone will win an election. That shouldn’t be surprising. From Meg Whitman to Linda McMahon to John Raese to virtually every candidate supported by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS in 2012, better-funded candidates often come up short on Election Day.

If high-profile examples don’t impress you, consider the academic research. In a review of the body of research on money in politics, University of Missouri professor Jeff Milyo wrote in 2013:

There is something of a scholarly consensus . . . stand[ing] in stark contrast to the popular wisdom so often echoed by pundits, politicians, and reform advocates that elections are essentially for sale to the highest bidder (spender). Decades of social-science research consistently reveal a far more limited role for campaign spending.

Earlier this year, University of Georgia’s Keith Poole presented research showing that most wealthy political donors are relatively moderate in their views, compared with a Congress that is becoming more partisan. This suggests that wealthy donors aren’t getting the government they want.

Money is certainly important in campaigns. It’s necessary to get your message out and hire staff. But other factors matter more. This is increasingly so, as the cost of speaking with voters has fallen thanks to innovations such as e-mail and social media. If you don’t have a persuasive message, organizational skills, and a good candidate, all the money in the world is not enough to beat someone who does have these pluses. Cantor, who spent more on steak dinners than Brat did on his entire campaign, clearly had no shortage of resources.

Believe it or not, some groups advocating for greater regulation of political speech are spinning Cantor’s loss as evidence of the need for further restrictions on money in politics. Common sense might lead one to suspect that the fear of money corrupting voters is overblown — given that a challenger can unseat an incumbent with less than 4 percent of the incumbent’s funding. Nonetheless, groups such as Public Campaign Action Fund and Demos have used Brat’s criticism of government corruption and crony capitalism to argue that his supporters must also want campaign-finance “reform.” Those who agitate for greater restrictions on spending money in the political process have their hammer, and they are convinced that every problem is a nail.

In reality, campaign-finance restrictions are closer to being the epitome of corruption than its antithesis. The crony capitalists here are not citizens with the gall to donate up to $2,600 per election to the candidate of their choice, but the incumbent politicians and entrenched political interests crafting legislation — and now constitutional amendments — to limit speech about candidates in order to protect their privilege and prevent new voices from getting a seat at the table.

Despite incredibly low approval ratings for Congress, incumbents continue to win reelection at high rates. The advantages incumbents typically hold over challengers — name recognition, ties to party leaders and media members, databases of donors from past campaigns, free postage — are difficult to overcome. The challenges are further exacerbated by contribution limits and other restrictions on fundraising. Given the evidence that money is necessary to win an election, but not sufficient, government can best promote competitive elections simply by getting out of the way of candidates’ fundraising and imposing as few limits as possible.

Virginia voters proved once again that we are not brainwashed by whichever candidate has more money to spend. Americans are smart enough to know whom they want to vote for. We should stop pretending that campaign-finance restrictions are about protecting the public and admit their true purpose: protecting incumbent politicians from challengers.

— Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article identified Keith Poole as an Arizona State University professor. He is actually a professor at the University of Georgia.


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