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.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Yeah, but even “the little people” have to find some way or another to use up their surplus capital. This is probably as good as spending it on drugs or alcohol.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Political fund raising emails are the new Nigerian prince emails. Really, if you have the disposable income to support political campaigns, give the money to state and local organizations of your choice.

  3. de stijl says:

    Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

    I walk into a general election campaign really sure who I’m going to vote for, no question asked, basically.

    For some independent swing voters, they might choose based upon ad buys. Maybe.

    I find most political ads really off-putting and annoying, even if they are for the person I’m going to vote for. Political ads for people I would never vote for in a billion years even if they were running against Satan himself I find even more distasteful.

    Political ads for candidates are just super annoying to me in general, even if we align on policy and preferred candidate.

    The movable middle in US politics is small. Actual swing voters are a small percent of the total. PACs and Super PACs spend enormous gobs of money on ads that are meant for a tiny fraction of the voting population.

    Most political ads suck and annoy me deeply. Money poorly spent, mostly.

    I got dozens of text push ads on my phone this year. I hated every one. I know it is bad protocol and security dubious to do so, but I started to reply to texts. “Yeah, it would take the heat death of the universe to get me to vote for your preferred candidate and by then I will have been dead for several billion years. It ain’t happening.”

    One cheeky person texted me back with “So eventually, then?” which I thought was fairly awesome.

  4. Scott says:

    As one who has cut the cable and relies on streaming, I saw very few ads this cycle. Believe it or not, I got most of my info on local candidates through the mail and local news broadcasts. No one knocked on the door. Endless emails went to spam. O’Rourke texted me constantly. Nothing from Abbott.

    So where does the money go? Who decides what is considered an effective use of funds?

  5. gVOR08 says:

    This is, I think, mostly true at the individual candidate level. However, with the usual caveat, terminology updated per a post by James a week or so ago. All that money can’t sway our calcified partisanship except slightly at the margin. BUT. Our party parity is so close that many races are won or lost by slight movements at the margin.

    But Republican money, much of it dark, has built a huge support infrastructure, the long list of think (sic) tanks, activist organizations, researchers, academics, legal foundations, publications, PACs, lobbyists, and these days I expect militias, with common goals, interlocking boards of directors, and rotating staff. One Koch died and the other is being superseded by the Uihleins, Mercers, Thiel, etc. so I hate to call it the Kochtopus, but I haven’t seen a better name. It includes McConnell’s PAC which buys his influence and his position as Leader. Much of this is hugely wasteful and ineffective, but they can afford it. And it’s worked. It’s created the absurd Republican Party we have before us. And it can always use, or use up, more money. It’s a lot of mouths to feed.

  6. Andy says:

    I think a factor is where the money is coming from. A lot of candidates get big warchests, but it’s from money generated elsewhere. A dollar raised among people who can actually vote for you is probably a lot more valuable than a dollar that comes from someone on the other side of the country.

    And it seems to me that much of the spending is dumb and wasteful, especially on ad buys.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    Serendipity. I post a rant about the Kochtopus and here comes Digby with a great example. ALEC is a very successful Koch fueled lobbying outfit. In this example they’re pushing model legislation in red states to prohibit companies from boycotting other companies. Free speech for me but not for thee.

  8. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    So you are saying that Warnock is going to be awash in cash and it’s a waste to donate $$$ to his run-off campaign?
    Not sure I agree.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: I guarantee you that both Warnock and Walker will have far more money than they can profitably spend for the runoff. Indeed, I can’t imagine a person who is both going to show up to vote in the runoff who doesn’t already have a firm opinion on the two.

  10. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    I donated to Fetterman who likely was in the same boat, and he barely eked out the win.
    I also donated to Ryan in Ohio, who probably could have won if he’d had more support from the National Party.
    Surely the Warnock race is in a class all by itself.

    Indeed, I can’t imagine a person who is both going to show up to vote in the runoff who doesn’t already have a firm opinion on the two.

    Let’s hope Gen Z continues to show up in force.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: The Georgia and Pennsylvania races were easily the two most well-financed—and tons of money is already pouring into the Georgia runoff, both according to Reuters.

    And, while Vance vastly underperformed DeWine, he still beat Ryan by seven percentage points. It wasn’t a tight race.

  12. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    Yes – but Ryan got almost no support from the DNC.
    Vance also ran behind Trump’s 2020 number.

  13. de stijl says:

    Text push ads are somewhat interesting. The people who send out the ads basically don’t care. Give me money and I will push to as many phone numbers as are in my database.

    What are the analytics on text ads? Do they do anything? Change any behavior? Change votes or drive to the polling station any new voters or people who haven’t voted in a while? No one knows. It’s all guesswork.