Does Campaign Money Matter?
How much is enough?
WaPo data analyst David Byler contends, “Politicians probably don’t need your money.”
The best elections analyst of 2022 wasn’t Nate Silver, Nate Cohn, Amy Walter or any of the familiar names.
It was personal finance writer Vicki Robin.
Okay, I don’t actually think Robin is the greatest political number cruncher alive. To my knowledge, she hasn’t written a word of elections analysis this year. But her basic ideas about personal finance illuminate everything you need to know about campaign cash and how politicians spend (read: waste) your heartfelt donations.
One of Robin’s key concepts is “enough.” When people understand their goals and values, they will find out how to spend “enough” to meet them — and any spending beyond that is a waste.
From that rather weak premise, Byler illustrates how it applies to campaigns:
Democrat Amy McGrath ran against GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell in 2020, and she was a magnet for money. Rank-and-file Democrats badly wanted to believe that they could take out the top-ranking Republican senator, so they flooded her campaign with small-dollar donations. She spent almost $91 million of that $94 million.
Charles Booker, on the other hand, spent less than 10 percent of McGrath’s total in his bid to unseat GOP Sen. Rand Paul and got the same vote percentage.
Both Democrats spent “enough” to hire staff, run a campaign and win as many votes as they could in deep-red Kentucky. McGrath’s extra $85 million didn’t net her a single extra vote.
Which seems to me to illustrate not so much that campaigns don’t need money but that it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money in unwinnable races. Kentucky is a Republican state and McConnell is an incredibly powerful and effective Senator; it was absurd to think that McGrath could beat him. Paul is somewhat less popular but there was no way he was going to lose to a Democrat.
Byler finally gets to a more interesting if narrower premise:
Kentucky politicians aren’t alone in having “enough” funds. In every competitive Senate race of 2022, both candidates had more money than they needed.
The proof is in the results.
In each state — where we have final calls, at least — the vote totals followed a simple formula. Results looked like the baseline partisanship of the state, adjusted up or down if either candidate was especially charismatic, with a small bonus for incumbent legislators. Both candidates had enough money, so we don’t need to cite the fundraising total to explain the result.
That’s probably right. There is so much money in American politics that any but token major party nominee for President, Senator, or Governor likely has more funds than they can effectively spend.
For example, in Ohio in 2020, Donald Trump won 53 percent of the vote. In the state’s 2022 open Senate race, Republican J.D. Vance also won 53 percent of the vote. There’s no need to account for Tim Ryan’s massive fundraising machine or the outside money men who helped Vance. Both had enough cash. The basic facts of the race (the state’s Republican tilt, the lack of an incumbent, etc.) shaped the result.
Similarly in Arizona, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly leads Republican Blake Masters and seems poised to win by a few points (though the race hasn’t been called). Kelly is a sitting senator and a former astronaut in a purple state, and Masters is a political newcomer with a deeply weird record of online posts. Without knowing that Kelly raised $79 million (and Masters raised $12 million), I would expect Kelly to win handily.
The same exercise works in other states. High-profile candidates always have enough money to hire a staff, hold rallies, fill the airwaves and maximize their vote-earning potential.
Masters is arguably an exception, in that $12 million is not much money these days, but it was quite unlikely he would beat Kelly. One suspects that, had the primary produced a more plausible nominee, the national GOP would have spent a whole lot more money on the race.
Which gets us to Byler’s takeaway:
Donations can make a difference in certain kinds of elections: local offices, sleeper races or presidential primaries. In these cases, some politicians really don’t have enough money to get every possible vote, or even make it to Election Day without dropping out.
But if Senate, presidential or gubernatorial candidates are on cable TV, they’re probably already awash in cash. They don’t need your money — by Vicki Robin’s standard, they already have enough.
That’s probably right.