More evidence emerges each day that money isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be in elections. This report observes that Sharron Angle wound up spending the equivalent of $97 per voter, while Harry Reid plunked down only $69. The extra cash, much of it from out of state, didn’t “buy” Angle the seat. Nor did Meg Whitman prevail despite $140M in spending. Linda McMahon’s personal fortune didn’t talk Connecticut voters out of electing the truth-challenged Richard Blumenthal. In fact, out of the top 10 congressional cash-per-vote spenders, only three won.
So why do the media and politicians obsess so over cash? Well, there is a kernel of truth that you need some money to run a respectable campaign. And in states with expensive media (e.g., New Jersey, New York, California), that is going to be a big figure. But to a large extent, we’ve been bamboozled into thinking that money is more critical than it is. Reporters love to write about it — there are concrete figures and a horse-race quality to the money race. Pols — even the president this time around — love to grouse that the other guys have more, even when they don’t. It beats admitting that your own candidates are less than stellar and that your agenda is toxic. And of course there is an army of consultants, new- and old-media experts, pollsters, ad men, social-network gurus, debate preparers, clothing mavens, and speech coaches to convince their clients and us that all their very expensive services are essential to victory.
But in the end, much of that money is wasted. John McCain won the GOP presidential nomination on a shoestring budget. This year, many small spenders won. (“In upstate New York, Rep. Scott Murphy (D) and his supporters spent $66 for each of the 99,000 votes he received, or about $6.5 million. But he was defeated by retired Army Col. Chris Gibson, who spent $4 million, or $33 per vote.”) So when hysterics scream that our democracy is being “hijacked” by corporate money or that a billionaire is “buying” an election, take it with a grain of salt. Interest groups — from Big Labor to the Chamber of Commerce — don’t mind the illusion that their largesse is essential to a candidate’s victory; indeed, they perpetuate it in order to sustain their clout. But perhaps the “problem” of money in politics is largely in our heads — and in the wallets of those whose livelihoods depend on exaggerating the importance of campaign cash.