Commentary

In Politics, Money Can’t Buy You Love

By Jerry Taylor
March 3, 2000
Steve Forbes’s campaign for the presidency recently closed up shop. Sure, he was a poor candidate, but his failed candidacy is a standing rebuke to those who believe that politics is hopelessly corrupted by money. Campaign dollars can’t buy you love, but the contrary belief is a crucial supposition of the political morality play being spun out in the present campaign. That morality play goes as follows: politicians are interested primarily in getting elected; politicians cannot get elected unless they raise huge sums of money; the main source of this money is “special interests”; special interests won’t hand out money without getting something in return; politicians therefore sell their votes to special interests in return for campaign contributions.

The first supposition is correct. Political scientists have concluded that one cannot make any sense out of legislative voting behavior unless one understands that politicians vote for or against various programs of the basis of their calculation of how those votes will affect their reelection prospects.

But the second supposition is incorrect, as the collapse of the Forbes campaign and the rise of the McCain campaign demonstrate. Forbes outspent McCain 2 to 1, Bush outspent McCain by more than 4 to 1, yet McCain still drubbed them both in New Hampshire and continues to outperform the Texas governor.

The fact that money cannot buy elections is clear. Phil Gramm had the money in 1996 but got beat in Iowa and trounced in New Hampshire by the shoestring Buchanan operation. In 1980 John Connolly came into the Republican primary with the biggest sack of campaign cash ever seen, but it was no more help to him than it was to Steve Forbes.

Of course, one cannot minimize the importance of money. It can’t buy votes, but it can buy a microphone through which a candidate can communicate directly with voters. Voters may or may not like what they hear, but for lesser-known candidates, campaign spending is the only way to talk directly to the electorate.

So money is important, but do politicians really sell their souls (votes) to get it? It just so happens that academics who have exhaustively studied campaign contribution and voting behavior data find no correlation between the two. Indeed, political science journals are full of persuasive rejoinders to the popular belief that campaign contributions can explain voting behavior. As Yogi Berra said, you could look it up.

Consider the matter of ethanol subsidies, an obnoxious example, said John McCain, of special interests buying favors from politicians at the taxpayers’ expense. Assume that we banned all campaign contributions from farmers and food processing companies that benefit from the ethanol program. Would support for the ethanol program disappear? Unfortunately, no. Anybody campaigning for the presidency in Iowa will have to pledge eternal and unending love for ethanol or suffer the wrath of caucus goers.

Likewise, any farm state legislator will find it impossible to get reelected without currying favor with farmers because farmers are well organized and vote in droves. No matter how much money ethanol opponents (say, the oil industry) might wish to give to a farm state legislator, it will not reprogram that politician’s survival instinct and thus will not effect his vote on ethanol.

Oh, there’s corruption here all right, but it’s not the kind being brayed about by McCain, Bradley, Gore and the rest. Special interests aren’t bribing legislators to vote for handouts. Politicians are bribing voters (primarily those voters represented by the “special interests”) with taxpayer money to get reelected.

So why do special interests even bother to give campaign contributions? First, sending thank-you notes is good manners. Second, politicians have perfected the art of extortion. Congress has almost God-like power over industry, and the motto “better safe than sorry” guides a lot of special interest giving. Third, when legislators are calculating the electoral pluses and minuses related to any given vote, some calculations are sufficiently close that a sizable campaign contribution (or so the interest group hopes) might make a difference.

Does it? Probably in some cases, but not in most if the academic literature is to be believed. And even if it does, all that’s going on is the replacement of one form of corruption by another.

The real story of political corruption is far more nuanced than the story being told on the campaign trail. Ironically, McCain’s triumph over Forbes and early trouncing of Bush demonstrate the weakness of McCain’s argument about political corruption. It remains to be seen whether anyone will notice.

Jerry Taylor is a policy director at the Cato Institute.