Another round of elections, another chance to relearn an old lesson: Money does not buy elections. This time, Politico learns that “In six of the most hotly contested GOP primary contests this cycle, the best funded candidate lost.”
That money does not buy elections is a fact that has been borne out time and again. But so many are so invested in the contrary myth that they just won’t let it go. Take Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, who is quoted in the Politico piece as saying “It’s the exception to the rule. Ninety-five percent of the time, the candidate who spends the most wins.” But Mr. McCabe is getting cause and effect mixed up.
As Professor Jeffrey Milyo noted in a recent Freakonomics Quorum,
It is true that winning candidates typically spend more on their campaigns than do their opponents, but it is also true that successful candidates possess attributes that are useful for both raising money and winning votes (e.g., charisma, popular policy positions, etc.). This “reverse causality” means that campaign spending is potentially as much a symptom of electoral success as its cause.
Or, as Stephen Dubner put it, “winning an election and raising money do go together, just as rain and umbrellas go together. But umbrellas don’t cause the rain.”
So, we have yet more evidence that money does not buy elections. Instead, money facilitates speech. It buys exposure—the opportunity to make your speech heard by voters. It does not and cannot buy elections because the voters are ultimately the ones deciding who to vote for. And—contrary to the belief of “reformers”—voters do not just blindly embrace those campaigns with the most money for advertising.
Americans did not race out and embrace New Coke or the Ford Edsel just because big advertising campaigns said they should. Neither do they embrace Edsel-like candidates just because big advertising campaigns say they should.