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How does political cash in a campaign translate to a win?
January 18, 2010 6:40 AM   Subscribe

How does political cash in a campaign translate to a win?

Is it purely through advertising and get out the vote campaigns? I can't see either of those being effective in large numbers, at least enough to sway a campaign.

Or am I not realizing how impressionable advertising can be? Is there something more complicated happening involving PACs, corruption etc...
posted by destro to Law & Government (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it's probably worth pointing out that cash alone doesn't necessarily do it (see Steve Forbes or Ross Perot). My general understanding is that cash buys more advertising, better staff, and more feet on the ground. Some percentage of it is probably going towards shadiness, but I think it just lets you build a bigger organization. Running it well, though, is another story.
posted by jquinby at 6:49 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, advertising, campaigners, etc. Flashy ads make a difference. If a candidate's ads look like photocopied or from cable access tv, they don't have much of a chance. Paying for the ad to be shown multiple times, nationwide, is also very expensive (especially if you have to make several during the election in response to allegations and other developments). Renting out halls and putting on speeches, touring around the country with an entourage... all very expensive.

Also, more money allows you to hire more strategists - effective people (although probably very shady and snaky) who can both improve your campagin and destroy your opponent's one.

And I'm pretty sure that there is significant vote-rigging going on by every party in every jurisdiciton where they can, and that costs money to maintain.
posted by molecicco at 6:56 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Steven Levitt, the Freakonomics guy, argues that the case is that the most funded politician is usually the winner, but not so much because advertising works. It's more because the public will give more money to the politician who is better liked, and thus more likely to perform better in the election. Self funded politicians like Steve Forbes and Ross Perot show that public donations are a good predictor of the winner.

So it may be a case of correlation and causation being a bit muddy.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:01 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having more cash also helps generate momentum, or create the aura of inevitability. Primaries, especially, tend to have a lot of discrepancy in the amount of money raised by each candidate. There's not necessarily a lot to report early in the campaign, so media outlets absolutely pay attention to the FEC reports filed each quarter by the candidates. The candidate who raises 500k in a quarter looks a lot more viable than the candidate who didn't raise enough to have to file a report.
posted by casualinference at 7:02 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's called "get out the vote money" "walking around money" or "street money". You've literally got guys--Democratic operatives, usually--walking around Philadelphia, Baltimore, and similar urban areas (not all on the East Coast) with sacks of cash telling people who to vote for. Yeah, ad buys are expensive, but a single district can require tens of thousands of dollars to secure through what amounts to outright bribery and vote buying.

Republicans do this too, but Democrats are much better represented in urban areas--due in no small part to the fact that they've been doing this for decades--so it's more associated with them than the GOP.
posted by valkyryn at 7:05 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in this graph from the Center for Responsive Politics, which is a pretty neat organization that publishes a lot of info about how political campaigns receive and spend money.

It indicates that about 1/3 of campaign funds are spent on media advertising, and another 1/3 on paying campaign workers. The rest is spent on other campaign expenses, fundraising expenses, etc.

If we assume that money is spent pretty strategically by candidates on average, then I'd conclude that advertising is about 1/3 of the battle. Of course, since another 1/3 is hiring many of the people who will create the advertising, you might consider advertising even more important than 1/3 of the money.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:07 AM on January 18, 2010

I'm reasonably certain that candidates for federal office, at least, have to file their expenditures the FEC. So...

- You could probably look up the data online.
- There's enough transparency that corruption on the scale you're thinking is highly unlikely.
posted by mkultra at 7:09 AM on January 18, 2010

Sometimes (not so frequently in the USA) they simply pay people to vote for them.
posted by ropeladder at 7:29 AM on January 18, 2010

Umm, can I point out that valkyryn's answer (currently marked as "best") totally misrepresents what its own links say? The money isn't paid to voters, it's paid to on-the-street campaigners. And in the cases of bribery it's generally not cash for votes, but services (like transportation to the polling station, which costs cash) for votes.

Not to harsh anyone's cynicism buzz, or to suggest that these practices aren't sleazy, but I come to Ask for good answers, not propaganda.
posted by bjrubble at 8:14 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Valkyryn has the concept of "walking around money" completely wrong. The money goes to ward leaders and is then distributed to election day campaigners who drive people to polls or hand out literature or what have you. I'm not a huge fan of the practice, but the money is certainly NOT paid to individual voters to vote for a certain candidate.
posted by fancypants at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2010

You're definitely underestimating the power of advertising.This is probably because you're underestimating how little attention the average voter pays to most races. Simple name recognition is one of the primary drivers of voting behavior (this is one of the reasons that incumbents are so entrenched).
posted by ewiar at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2010

Is it purely through advertising and get out the vote campaigns? I can't see either of those being effective in large numbers, at least enough to sway a campaign.

That's because you're likely a fairly educated, well-read person who thinks about politics and understands the issues. Sadly, much of the electorate is apathetic and uninformed about politics. This makes them much more susceptible to advertising, and much more likely to stay home without some sort of prodding.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:03 AM on January 18, 2010

Those pieces you get in the mail cost a lot of money. I've designed a lot of these for various candidates. It's not so much the printing, which does cost a not-so-insignificant amount of money. But the postage and handling on these mailers is tremendous. I've been able to get easier pieces mailed for about 16 cents each on top of the printing. Some more complicated pieces requiring inserting or special handling can cost more than 20 cents each or even more, depending on how you need the mailing house to handle things. When you're doing this on a scale of tens of thousands, it gets expensive quick. On one state campaign, we had a budget of $15,000 for the whole show. We did a mailing to 20,000 likely voters and it ate half of the campaign budget.
posted by azpenguin at 9:25 AM on January 18, 2010

I do the institutional side of legislatures, not the electoral, so I don't keep up with that field like I ought to. But:

The problem with elections and money, as mccarty.tim notes, is that there's a severe endogeneity problem.

It's really easy to plot a graph of how much money a candidate spends and how well they do, and see that the relationship is positive.* The problem is that the amount of money you have to spend doesn't just drop out of the sky, and it's not randomly assigned to you by a researcher. The amount of money you have is intimately tied to how well people think you're going to do. There's very little point in me giving money to a candidate who is hopeless -- who could not possibly win the election unless the other major-party candidate is caught with the proverbial live boy or dead girl.

There are different ways to try to get around this, most involving doing more statistics with heroic assumptions. An instrumental variables approach is common. When people do this, what they generally find is that spending either doesn't help incumbents, or helps them a weensy smidge, and that spending provides a positive but not overwhelming benefit to challengers. One factor to note, though, is that credible challengers will nearly always have enough money to make a solid run out of things, and much of the results here hinges on the range between $0 and say $100000.

Much of this seems to be mediated by name recognition. As others have noted, most Americans aren't very interested in politics and, to the extent that they vote, want to make a decision quickly and easily without having to watch a lot of boring news or nasty campaign ads. One of the voter heuristics that emerges is, unsurprisingly, that people are unlikely to vote for someone whose name they don't recognize. Not someone that they don't remember, but they look at the ballot and the name doesn't even ring a bell. Also unsurprisingly, advertising is an efficient way to get people to recognize your name.

*Even then it's complicated. Among incumbents, the raw effect of spending is actually negative, but this is because uncontested incumbents don't spend much while candidates facing an extremely tough contest are likely to spend tons.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010

I should add that boosting name awareness is a very important factor in campaigns. Ballots are often lengthy, with a lot of offices being voted on. So people go to the polls knowing they're planning on voting for Joe Schmoe for president, Jane Grandstander for governor, John Longspeech for US Representative, and Jay Rhetoric for US Senate. They don't always know who they're voting for on down-ticket races. So when they see offices like school board, state legislature, and so on, many voters didn't really think about who they are voting for. This is a case where a slick-looking mailer or TV commercial really can translate into votes.
posted by azpenguin at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010

How To Win While You Lose

This Frank Rich article led me to the following understanding:

Murdoch news sources (esp. Fox news) give Giuliani more air-time,
which boosts contributions to Giuliani campaign,
a chunk of which gets spent on advertising
on Murdoch-owned media outlets (not necessarily Fox news).

Giuliani never had a hope of winning the presidential campaign, but it sent buckets of money to his friends.
posted by dragonsi55 at 11:49 AM on January 18, 2010

A lot of the answers here focus on the idea that Americans don't pay much attention to politics.

But even if you do pay attention — you read the papers, watch the news, listen to debates, research the issues, and so on — your impression of the candidates is still affected by their spending. A candidate with money can afford to create newsworthy events: to stage rallies, to run controversial ads, to travel to small towns where their mere presence is worthy of a headline, and so on. That means more mentions in the news media, and more attention even from serious and level-headed voters. When candidates A and B are on the front page of the paper every day, giving speeches and kissing babies and doing all that media-friendly crap, even the best-informed voter will wind up knowing more about their platforms than he does about the platforms of Z and Q.

To some extent, it's rational to prefer a candidate with high visibility. Or rather, it's rational to prefer a candidate who you know a lot about, and who has been subjected to a lot of scrutiny. You can be the world's most incorruptible voter — immune to attack ads, unaffected by first impressions, staunchly resistant to bribery — and yet if you find yourself in the voting booth choosing between A (whose policies you can describe in great detail, thanks to all those ads and speeches and headlines and TV appearances) and Z (whose name you heard once or twice when he declared his candidacy), you're going to vote for A or abstain. You're sure as hell not going to vote for Z — and why should you? You know nothing about the guy.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:34 PM on January 18, 2010

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