Forget Money In Politics; There's a Bigger Problem with Elections

Author: Fair Vote
Created: 24 March, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read

In 2010, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on corporate election spending in the landmark Citizens United case. A majority of the justices considered political spending to be a form of free speech, corporations were free to ‘speak’, with the goal to persuade the voting public, through political contributions. Since then, the amount of money spent in elections has grown drastically, and the source of that money has become a key concern for many Americans. Many have come to wonder, with so much money involved, could our elections simply be ‘bought’?

Academic studies have largely found that candidate spending does not generally impact who wins: it is very difficult for a candidate to buy their way into elected office. Instead, election outcomes are increasingly decided along party lines. Ticket-splitting (voting for candidates of different parties during a single election) and party-switching (voting for candidates of different parties in subsequent elections) has become less common, and there are fewer undecided voters who can be persuaded by campaign spending. Far from making it easier for rich or well funded candidates to dupe naive voters, having more money pumped into more and more negative campaigns may simply be entrenching partisan divides, and further nationalizing our local politics.

FairVote’s biannual Monopoly Politics report has found that while a correlation exists between the amount of money spent and the amount of votes won, it is limited in several key ways. FairVote’s analysis looks at races in which an incumbent is running for re-election, and identified specific circumstances in which spending can significantly affect voting. Here are our key findings:

  1. We found no relationship between incumbent spending and reelection, but did find a small relationship between challenger spending and incumbent reelection, as shown above in our chart of effects on incumbent reelection of Partisanship, historic incumbent performance, whether the incumbent was a Republican (since 2014 was a Republican wave year), and log of challenger spending.. In other words, a well-financed challenger is more important than a well-financed incumbent.
  2. If the election is in a competitive district, the challenger candidate’s spending has a larger effect. What does this mean? Partisanship is key: when high partisan affiliation is eliminated, campaign spending has a more significant effect on election outcomes.
  3. Campaign spending has diminishing returns: each dollar a campaign spends is less effective than the dollar spent before. This is why we used log of spending in our analysis, rather than spending itself.
  4. Finally, other factors have a much greater impact on electoral outcomes. While money does matter more in competitive races, other factors tied to partisanship have a greater impact.Factors like party affiliation and past performance are much more indicative of election outcomes than campaign spending, as shown above.

Campaign spending is not the primary driver of election results, as is often claimed. Uncompetitive elections and unrepresentative outcomes are not a result of the recent tidal wave of money in our elections, but rather an increasingly partisan political environment driven by the inherent shortcomings of winner-take-all elections. When partisanship is central to our legislative system and only one candidate, from one party, can win, it should be no surprise that good governance falls through the cracks.

To learn more about FairVote’s proposals to reform our legislatures and bring the power back to the people, click here. To read FairVote’s Monopoly Politics report, which provides an in-depth analysis of our research and findings, and offers concrete proposals for reform, click here. [FairVote will soon be releasing our 2018 Monopoly Politics report, so make sure to check back!]

Editor's note: This analysis originally published on FairVote's blog. To learn more about FairVote, visit the group's website.

Photo Credit: Sean Locke Photography / shutterstock.com

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