Commentary

In Praise of the $69 Million Mayoral Campaign

By Patrick Basham
December 29, 2001
Did Michael Bloomberg spend too much on his successful campaign to be elected New York City’s next mayor? No, he didn’t. In fact, Bloomberg’s new constituents would have been better off if he’d spent more, rather than less, seeking their votes.

But isn’t it a bad idea to spend a lot of money on campaigns? Our cultural elite, self-anointed guardians of the electoral process, decried the $69 million outlay by New York’s mayor-elect. The professional anti-spending lobby concurs. According to Common Cause, “it’s a real problem for democracy” that Bloomberg spent so much money.

On the contrary, it is a sign of political good health. The criticism of Bloomberg, reminiscent of past attacks on other big spending, self-financed challengers, ignores the positive contribution that campaign spending makes to our system of representative government. The well-worn statement that “there is too much money in campaigns” illustrates the conventional lack of wisdom on campaign spending. There’s little substance to this assertion. In fact, the United States doesn’t spend too much on elections — at all levels of campaigning, we spend just $15 per eligible voter, less than we spend on yogurt or potato chips.

The best political science scholarship confirms what politicians recognize at first glance — it’s difficult for a challenger to oust an incumbent without the former spending at least as much as, and probably more than, the latter during the campaign period. In Bloomberg’s case, he was a virtual unknown among New York voters. Furthermore, he was running against Mark Green, New York City’s public advocate, a careerist politician whose name and face were well known to those most likely to vote.

Nearly all prominent incumbent politicians, such as big city mayors, congressmen, senators, and governors, enjoy free mailings to constituents, large staffs, free travel, free constituent service, and unlimited access to the media. In addition to being paid for by taxpayers, those vote-enhancing instruments share a common origin: All were self-bestowed benefits brought into effect by incumbent politicians seeking to reinforce their political invulnerability. Critically, candidate-spending limits are similarly proffered to ensure the same outcome: an uneven campaign-playing field.

Only by spending large sums on television advertising, direct mail solicitations, and grassroots organization can an unknown challenger develop the levels of name recognition, issue identification, and voter mobilization to catch up with the years (frequently decades) of subsidized campaigning and pork barrel spending that so characterize an incumbent’s terms in office.

In isolation, reduced campaign spending would have two insidious consequences. First, it would greatly reduce the likelihood that a challenger will successfully oust an incumbent, thereby further reducing the level of competition necessary for a healthy political system. Second, such long odds against success would provide yet another enormous disincentive for qualified, successful people to put themselves forward as candidates in the first place, thereby reducing the quality of the pool of potential challengers and would-be successors should - by scandal, death, or resignation - an incumbent fail to gain or seek reelection.

Unlike the average challenger, Bloomberg’s incredibly successful business career afforded him the ability to self-finance the most expensive mayoral campaign in American political history. The major upside of his spending was an electorate far better informed about both of the two major candidates than if a more Scrooge-like figure had challenged the political establishment.

Revealingly, Bloomberg’s victory is the first time a Republican candidate has succeeded a Republican mayor in liberal New York City, where Democrats enjoy a massive 5-to-1 edge in party registration. Both increased political competition and a better-informed electorate are worthy goals for a representative democracy. Fortunately, increased campaign spending makes both goals more attainable.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.