Bruce Bartlett has a good opinion piece on money in politics in Forbes. He mostly focuses on self-funding candidates who rarely win even when they contribute large sums to their own campaigns. The recent Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, which Bartlett mentions, saw Terry McAuliffe spend over $7 million and lose badly. McAuliffe financed his bid in the usual way by attracting contributions. His success at fundraising may have cost him votes in the end.
Despite the McAuliffe example and others mentioned by Bartlett, people still believe “only money matters in politics” or “money buys elections.” The truth is, money matters but not all that much. Other factors, like circumstances, partisanship and the quality of the candidate, have more effect on the outcome of any election. It is true that incumbent members of Congress generally raise more than their challengers and almost always defeat them. But if you take into account the quality of a challenger, money has little effect on the outcome of a race.
We hear little these days about money buying elections. The people who complain about the power of money to subvert democracy are almost always on the left. If money buys elections, is Obama’s presidency a subversion of democracy? After all, the current president is the most successful fundraiser in American history, and not all of his money came from small contributors. But Obama didn’t buy the election of 2008. He was running against an unpopular administration with the economy mired in a deep recession. Obama was a skillful candidate who ran an effective campaign. John McCain could have matched Obama’s fundraising and the Republican still would have lost.
Money is overrated in politics. Just ask Terry McAuliffe.