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Did Obama Buy the Presidency?

Barack Obama outspent John McCain by an enormous amount.

President-elect Barack Obama placed 155% more spot TV ads than John McCain during the general election season (6/08 to 11/08), and almost twice as many ads dating back to the beginning of January when the primaries were just heating up.

[...]

The local numbers show a much bigger discrepancy than those for national cable and network buys. Sen. McCain kept pace w/ President-elect Obama in those categories, with Obama edging out his rival by just 136 ad buys in the cable and network combined, dating back to January.

I’m not sure what to make of this.  Stephen Green casts this as “buying the White House.”  But the reason he spent so much was because he raised so much.  He thus capitalized on his initial popularity advantage and managed to increase it.   Nor was this a case of a rich candidate jumping into a local race and blowing the doors off his unfunded opponent.  McCain made the conscious — and stupid — decision to rely on public financing rather than compete on the fundraising front.

Nor is it even clear how much Obama’s spending advantage helped.  He started the race with a significant poll advantage over McCain, lost it narrowly and briefly a few times, and wound up with essentially the same margin as he started with.

If anything, McCain can take some (admittedly, exceedingly) small comfort from the fact that he got more bang for his advertising buck than Obama, losing by a mere 7 points despite having been outspent by a fantastic margin.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    The Freakonomics guy says that political advertising doesn’t change electoral outcomes.

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  2. Bithead says:

    Stupid? Perhaps.
    Say what yuo will of Maccain’s attitude on the matter, I’ll likely agree with you. But the difference is, Obama won because he broke his promise and McCain didn’t.

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  3. Alex Knapp says:

    A promise to consider to do something is not the same as a promise to do something.

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  4. Davebo says:

    I don’t recall anyone pondering whether or not George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan “bought” the presidency.

    All three had significant fund raising advantages over their opponents.

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  5. Jim Henley says:

    I’d just like to laugh at Bithead about the election one more time, and this seems like an appropriate occasion.

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  6. anjin-san says:

    Jim! How can you say that! Bit has been right, over and over again. Let us review his words of wisdom: (You can’t make this stuff up)

    10/29 – Less than a week away from the election and Obama is still losing ground. If the trend contunes through next week, and I see no reason it shouldn’t, we may well find out if those veiled threats from the Democrats about race riots will come true.

    10/31 – The conventional wisdom is saying Obama has it all wrapped up. However, I keep hearing Republican internal polling is saying something rather different than the CW. Nothing I can link to, of course, since the stuff isn’t supposed to be released at all to the general public. And yes, I’m only getting this stuff second hand… But it’s remarkable just how different the internals are from what the MSM has been force feeding us. For example in New Jersey and Michigan AND Pennsyvania, McCain is actually LEADING, for the first time. Yes, I said Michigan, and New Jersey. Reports on counts of early voting down in Florida show McCain leading by around 3 points. What I fnd most interesting is the undecideds and their movements… they’re going for McCain at a rate of around 4 to 1. All the Democrats I talk to are admitting to is that it’s going to be ‘close’. Since they weren’t admitting to that before, I suspect we’re in for a fairly good show Tuesday night.

    On the other hand, if the Republican internal polling is anything like accurate, (And it always has been in the past election cycles we’ve monitored here) then we’re about to see some really strange behavior on the part of the Dinosaur Media. Mass suicide, I wouldn’t rule out, either. McQ notes that

    it’ll be an unexpected upset bigger than Dewey v. Truman.

    11/3 – Around 24 hours from now we’ll be hip deep in it, though I eexpect we won’t have a good answer to the question of who won thw White House for another week or so.

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  7. Bithead says:

    So, we’re down to Clintonesque parsing of words, already, Alex?

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  8. just me says:

    I wouldn’t say that Obama bought the presidency. Although I do think having tons more money than your opponent helps, but I don’t think having a lot of money makes a bad candidate win.

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  9. anjin-san says:

    So, we’re down to Clintonesque parsing of words, already, Alex?

    When you combine CDS with ODS, what do you get?

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  10. odograph says:

    Am I the first to say “correlation is not causation” on this subject?

    How would we ever disentangle the chance that a popular candidate would attract (and spend) more money, from the chance that a candidate with a lot of money would become more popular?

    (Maybe if Obama started with a small amount and it snowballed, that would be an argument that popularity bred money and not vis-versa?)

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  11. capital L says:

    I don’t recall anyone pondering whether or not George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan “bought” the presidency.

    All three had significant fund raising advantages over their opponents.

    I really hope this was tongue-in-cheek–a simple Google news search of the New York Times’ archives yields articles hitting on the theme of a big money candidate “buying the presidency” stretching back into the 1800′s.

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  12. sam says:

    I’d think Republicans would be the last people to bitch about buying anything (and, yeah, that means you Bit).

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  13. Steve Plunk says:

    Those figures cited do not include favorable press coverage admitted by many in the press. Post election mea culpa’s are so easy to give after your candidate has won. While you may not be able to buy an election you may be able to win through sympathetic press coverage.

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  14. tom p says:

    Those figures cited do not include favorable press coverage admitted by many in the press. Post election mea culpa’s are so easy to give after your candidate has won. While you may not be able to buy an election you may be able to win through sympathetic press coverage.

    Steve, you have to differentiate between favorable and accurate (i know, hard to do when “your” guy is losing) Pretty much all (left and right) agree that Obama ran a near flawless campaign, while McCain made several mistakes. If reporting the truth under those circumstances (and remember, McCain entered this race as the “Maverick” darling of the press) is “biased”… we can use a little more bias in the future.

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  15. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    If you promise to talke public funding then don’t because you can get more funds from public pandering, I say you have no integrity. But then we are talking about a democrat. Honesty, integrity, morals. Just words to a democrat. They have no meaning.

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  16. odograph says:

    Those figures cited do not include favorable press coverage admitted by many in the press.

    This one also contains a correlation/causality tangle.

    What if there WAS more favorable news?

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  17. odograph says:

    If you promise to talke public funding then don’t because you can get more funds from public pandering, I say you have no integrity. But then we are talking about a democrat. Honesty, integrity, morals. Just words to a democrat. They have no meaning.

    Everyone should admit that Obama’s reverse on this was a bad thing. Many of us though would also admit that it is fair within the range of things we call politics.

    If politics are dirty, this was only a small to medium dirty incident.

    Compare it to the way Obama’s “palling around with Terrorists” is old news the day after the election, and no one really blames McCain.

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  18. G.A.phillips says:

    Everyone should admit that Obama’s reverse on this was a bad thing.

    Won’t happen till we use it against them and win. Then they Will propagandize it as if we were the first to do it and it’s the wost thing ever,same thing the liberals always do in almost every situation. LIE,BlAME,LIE.

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  19. odograph says:

    Won’t happen till we use it against them and win.

    I honestly don’t think it’s big enough for that.

    Most people will give politicians some grudging points for “desire to win.”

    Yes, from your perspective Obama should have put principle before winning … but certainly everyone who just won with him is going to see it the other way. Perhaps even some on the right will admit that they would have done exactly the same thing.

    I mean, James wrote in the new thread “McCain ultimately ran a pretty tough campaign, going negative when he had to.”

    Substitute “Obama ultimately ran a pretty tough campaign, going for the money when he had the choice.”

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  20. tom p says:

    Honesty, integrity, morals. Just words to a democrat. They have no meaning.

    HAHAHAheeheeheehee…

    After the past 8 years Zelsdorf, GA, I have to ask, just exactly what do they mean to a Bush Republican??????

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  21. ew says:

    I think I read somewhere that something like 90% of political candidates who win are the ones who spend more than their opponents. I think that might be more the case in state and smaller races where you don’t have as much research done, so you vote for who you remember. The illuminati democrats did a better job of generally marketing and advertising themselves this year. I don’t know if, in the chicken and egg debate, it was publicity from those who were excited, or publicity that made others excited. I’d be interested to hear a professional analyst’s opinion on this.

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