In Politics, Money Can’t Buy You Love

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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 thatone cannot make any sense out of legislative voting behavior unless oneunderstands that politicians vote for or against various programs of thebasis of their calculation of how those votes will affect their reelectionprospects.

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

The fact that money cannot buy elections is clear. Phil Gramm had the moneyin 1996 but got beat in Iowa and trounced in New Hampshire by the shoestringBuchanan operation. In 1980 John Connolly came into the Republican primarywith the biggest sack of campaign cash ever seen, but it was no more help tohim 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 communicatedirectly with voters. Voters may or may not like what they hear, but forlesser-known candidates, campaign spending is the only way to talk directlyto 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 studiedcampaign contribution and voting behavior data find no correlation betweenthe two. Indeed, political science journals are full of persuasiverejoinders to the popular belief that campaign contributions can explainvoting behavior. As Yogi Berra said, you could look it up.

Consider the matter of ethanol subsidies, an obnoxious example, said JohnMcCain, of special interests buying favors from politicians at thetaxpayers' expense. Assume that we banned all campaign contributions fromfarmers 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 eternaland unending love for ethanol or suffer the wrath of caucus goers.

Likewise, any farm state legislator will find it impossible to get reelectedwithout currying favor with farmers because farmers are well organized andvote in droves. No matter how much money ethanol opponents (say, the oilindustry) might wish to give to a farm state legislator, it will notreprogram that politician's survival instinct and thus will not effect hisvote on ethanol.

Oh, there's corruption here all right, but it's not the kind being brayedabout by McCain, Bradley, Gore and the rest. Special interests aren'tbribing legislators to vote for handouts. Politicians are bribing voters(primarily those voters represented by the "special interests") withtaxpayer 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 haveperfected the art of extortion. Congress has almost God-like power overindustry, and the motto "better safe than sorry" guides a lot of specialinterest giving. Third, when legislators are calculating the electoralpluses and minuses related to any given vote, some calculations aresufficiently close that a sizable campaign contribution (or so the interestgroup hopes) might make a difference.

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

The real story of political corruption is far more nuanced than the storybeing told on the campaign trail. Ironically, McCain's triumph over Forbesand early trouncing of Bush demonstrate the weakness of McCain's argumentabout political corruption. It remains to be seen whether anyone willnotice.