On Buying Elections

Noah sends an interesting article on the influence of money in the Wisconsin recall election. The basic claim is that money can’t have mattered all that much given that (a) this was essentially a rematch between the same two candidates running in the regularly-scheduled election and (b) it had more or less the same outcome. Quoting from this source:

What this election gave us is a rare and precious thing: a gubernatorial rematch. Walker and Barrett faced each other less than two years ago. Walker beat Barrett by five points back then, after raising $11 million to Barrett’s $6 million. That is, Walker raised 65% of the funds raised by the Republican and Democratic candidates that year and he won 53% of the two-party vote. This week, Walker raised about 88% of the funds raised by the two candidates and he won — wait for it — 54% of the two-party vote.

So there’s your money effect, folks. Go from a 2:1 money advantage to a 7:1 money advantage, and it could increase your vote share by a full percentage point! Woo hoo!

Weeeelll, maybe. It seems intuitively pretty plausible, but of course scientifically it’s a mess. A single data point doesn’t a generalization make. For all we know, Walker had become deeply unpopular by the time the recall started and his massive money advantage was a lot of running to stand still. Maybe he had to outspend Barrett 7:1 just to recreate the results of the last election. Or maybe the spending/results function is not even remotely linear, and outspending your opponent by a modest 3:1 advantage guarantees a massive win, 5:1 guarantees you’ll lose, and 8:1 buys you a 6-ish point victory. I mean honestly, who knows?

Actually, a lot of people are trying to know. There are plenty of political scientists who study exactly this. There’s pleny of money (obviously) in studying exactly this. So I don’t think it’s hurting for academic attention. I also don’t recall anyone ever definitively concluding that raising more money than your opponent will buy you an election. One would think it gives some advantage, else it’s hard to see why special interest groups would keep funnelling millions to single cmpaigns year after year. But I can’t imagine what advantage it gives, and under what circumstances, is actually all that clear to anyone. If it were, the debate over campaign finance rules would be very different.

I don’t think the way to counter claims that Walker bought the election is to claim that money doesn’t buy you much in elections. It might. Intuitively, it seems like it should. Certainly the people who spend all this money think it does. I can also imagine a lot of reasons why it might not – or at least not always. I think the best we can say is that campaign finance is an investment, and like any investment it carries a certain amount of risk. Betting on your horse in the race is still betting; no one promises you a win for your money. Sometimes the value of a company goes up because of market conditions, sometimes because of fundamentals of the company, sometimes because the company got lucky, sometimes because of marketing, sometimes because of massively outspending the competition, sometimes because of better strategy – but usually because of some combination of all of these things. Elections aren’t as complicated as the overall economy by a long shot, but they’re still complicated. The best any of us can say about funding in elections is that we strongly suspect it buys you something, but what and how much is really hard to say.

Given that, I think if our leftist opponents want to claim that Scott Walker “bought” the Wisconsin recall and have anyone take them seriously, they need to adopt some basic groundrules that I’ve seen little evidence that they’ve adopted.

First, they need to tell us what their theory of the influence of money in elections actually is – because it isn’t at all clear to me, or to anyone who studies this full time, that outspending your opponent will automatically buy you a win. Indeed, in the primary leading up to the recall, Falk outspent Barrett and still managed to lose the nomination to him. The fight over Amendment One in North Carolina is another case in point: the ‘no’ movement outspend the ‘yes’ camp by 2:1, and yet Amendment One passed by a huge margin. Point being, since a spending advantage clearly doesn’t always buy you a win, I think anyone claiming that Walker “bought” the election needs to tell us at the very least under what circumstances we can expect it to.

Second, whatever formula they come up with, it needs to apply to everyone equally. The thing that’s really galling about all of this is that I don’t remember anyone who thinks Walker “bought” the election getting around to mentioning that Obama outspent McCain by a pretty hefty margin (and, indeed, raised more than Bush and Kerry combined in 2004, an election which had, up to 2008, been a record-breaker) in 2008. Did Obama “buy” the 2008 election, then? And if not, why not? And so on for every other example of someone that people who think Walker “bought” the recall election tend to like who happened to win an election after outspending their opponent. In other words, I need to know not only what their theory on election spending is, but also how it applies to elections in general, and I need some assurance that they’re willing to call touche when this comes out against them.

Third, I suspect, but can’t really prove, that if the shoe were on the other foot – as, let’s make no bones about this, it frequently has been in the past where unions are concerned – there wouldn’t be much hand-wringing about the unions being a moneyed special interest. At least, I see very little evidence that people on the left are willing to talk about unions as a moneyed special interest. And yet, unions are the quintessential moneyed special interest. Pooling resources to buy political influence is their whole reason for existence. So, in addition to needing a theory consistently applied about the influence of money in elections in general, I also think I need some acknowledgement from union supporters that they unions they support are founded to do exactly that thing that they’re currently complaining about: namely buy political influence.

When these three conditions are met, I am willing to take complaints that Scott Walker may have “bought” the recall election seriously. Absent these three criteria – certainly absent the first two – it is a discussion without content, little more than a childish shouting match.

One thought on “On Buying Elections

  1. I was just searching the net for some hard data on money spent vs. election wins and found your blog post. Thank you.

    Thank you, thank you.

    Your blog is now bookmarked and subscribed.

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