McCain, the Media, Money, and Montesinos (and Obama Too)

So Barack Obama continues to raise millions upon millions of dollars, and if he wins the election a lot of people will certainly attribute his victory, at least in significant part, to this money.

But should they?

We addressed this topic in Freakonomics. Our argument was based on a clever piece of research by Steve Levitt (scroll down to “Using Repeat Challengers …”) in which he analyzed legislative races in which two opponents ran against each other more than once. Here’s why it was clever:

If Candidate A wins by 20 points and outspends Candidate B by 50 percent, it might be natural to assume that it was the money that made the difference. But how do you really know? It is hard to separate a candidate’s natural appeal from the appeal that is created by spending money on organization, ads, etc. So by measuring repeat challengers — i.e., races in which the candidates’ natural appeal stayed more or less constant — Levitt was able to isolate the impact of the money.

Here’s how we wrote up the results:

[T]he amount of money spent by the candidates hardly matters at all. A winning candidate can cut his spending in half and lose only 1 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a losing candidate who doubles his spending can expect to shift the vote in his favor by only that same 1 percent.

What really matters for a political candidate is not how much you spend; what matters is who you are.

Now of course you could argue that money can help change voters’ views of who a candidate is. Isn’t that the purpose of the standard campaign TV ad? (Actually, most of the ads these days seem to want to change voters’ views on the opponent, but that’s just the flip side of the same coin.) And a recent tally of Obama’s spending shows that he has spent $160 million on TV ads, easily dwarfing every other expenditure. Staff salaries, for instance, were $44 million; campaign events cost $16 million.

Now comes word that he spent $21 million on TV in the first week of October alone, and is buying up prime-time network space at the end of October to run a 30-minute infomercial.

As I wrote above, this spending will probably be seen as central to Obama’s victory if he wins. But our argument is that money is more a symptom of a winning campaign than a cause.

In other words: it’s not that raising a lot of money helps a candidate become more appealing and therefore do better; it’s that better candidates raise a lot of money because they are so appealing. Just remember: about a year ago, Mitt Romney was loaded and John McCain was just about broke. If money is so central to elections, why couldn’t Romney put McCain away? And how on earth did McCain end up winning the G.O.P. nomination?

It’s also interesting to note that Obama is using the media — well, buying the media, in the case of the infomercial — to get his message across, while part of McCain’s campaign message is that the media itself is the enemy. The antagonism between the McCain campaign and The Times in particular has been operatic. According to, the McCain campaign views The Times as “a partisan rag.” Here’s what McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt had to say:

Whatever The New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization … It is a pro-Obama organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Sen. McCain, attacks Gov. Palin, and excuses Sen. Obama.

The McCain/Palin anti-media attitude that was given full voice at the Republican convention continues to play out on the campaign trail. Consider this Washington Post report from a recent Palin campaign event:

Palin’s routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness. In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric‘s questions for her “less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media.”

At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African-American sound man for a network and told him, “Sit down, boy.”

But this doesn’t mean the McCain-Palin campaign has nothing to gain from the “partisan rag” media. McCain and Palin have both made good use of a report in The Times exploring the relationship between Obama and onetime domestic terrorist William Ayres.

So what is the right way to think about the relationship between money, the media, and campaign outcomes? Is it wise for Obama to spend so much on media? Is it wise for McCain to risk alienation of the media? Would all that money and energy be better spent on something else?

There may be some wisdom to be gleaned from a strange incident in the not-too-distant past in Peru. A few years ago, the economists John McMillan and Pablo Zoido wrote a fantastically interesting paper about Vladimiro Montesinos, who ran the Peruvian secret service under President Alberto Fujimori.

Montesinos was extremely corrupt and brazen. Not only did he routinely bribe anyone who could help Fujimori maintain power — more than $3 million a month went to judges, police officials, opposition politicians, and TV station owners — but Montesinos also kept ledgers of these bribes and even videotaped the transactions. Sadly for him (but good for McMillan and Zoido), Montesinos was busted, and the economists were able to analyze the bribe data.

Of the four main categories of bribe beneficiaries — police, judges, politicians, media owners — whom do you think Montesinos paid off the most?

Here’s the answer, as summarized by Richard Morin in The Washington Post:

It wasn’t even close. “One single television channel’s bribe was four times larger than the total of the opposition politicians’ bribes,” [the economists] found. “By revealed preference, the strongest check on the government’s power was the news media.”

So while Obama may be wasting millions of dollars in general, at least it seems he is wasting them in the right direction. As for McCain: well, it’s not too late to start sending out a little something to your friends in the media.

[Note: I'll be discussing this topic early tomorrow morning on The Takeaway.]

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  1. Joe Smith says:

    A politician can either “feed” the media (treat them well) or have the media feed on him.

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  2. hal says:

    But McCain/Palin won’t attack Faux News because Faux never tires of attacks on their “mainstream” rivals. In fact, most of McPalin’s rhetoric is calculated to generate crowd pleasing jeers to hype the Faux News ratings. Their message would be nothing without it.

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  3. ahmed najaaf says:

    Let’s call this observation “Levitt Equilibrium”

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  4. Derick says:

    Hal, every candidate is going for soundbites on sympathetic media.

    Right, so both parties attack the other’s media friends (Fox or The New York Times, for example), then attack the other for hypocrisy for their attacks. Lol.

    I also love how often we here about the “mainstream” media and its evil oppressive force against us, including from the mainstream media itself.

    People don’t seem to realize that their revolutionary populist message is EXACTLY what the mainstream media itself is saying, and exactly what everyone already agrees with.

    The media isn’t stopping us from progressing. The media and politicians are already saying the same thing as the people, while all are pretending it’s new and unique even though everyone is saying it. The problem is that we have exactly what we want but what want (a welfare state, mixed economy) isn’t working the way we’d like.

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  5. Matt says:

    “If money is so central to elections, why couldn’t Romney put McCain away?”

    Doesn’t this argument go both ways? If the more appealing candidate tends to raise more money why would the more appealing candidate (judged by the amount of money raised) ever lose to the less appealing candidate? If more appealing candidates raise more money shouldn’t richer campaigns tend to win, contrary to Levitt’s findings?

    Perhaps the fact that a significant portion of Romney’s campaign funds were his own money makes the difference in this case?

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  6. hibob says:

    “So by measuring repeat challengers — i.e., races in which the candidates’ natural appeal stayed more or less constant ”

    How do they control for incumbency? By looking at winners vs losers, Levitt guaranteed that he was looking at candidates whose natural appeal did NOT stay constant: one won, held office for years, and was the incumbent the next time. The other lost and presumably had a much lower profile until the next election.

    It would make much more sense to compare two candidates who ran for the same office two times in a row – but both LOST to a third candidate in the first election. The second time around both of the candidates would have comparable public exposure, and analyzing spending vs percentage of the vote would actually make sense.

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  7. Paul K says:

    Did he allow for negative ads? How much spending of a natural winner is to counteract negative ads by an opponent. It is likely that neg ads impact weaker candidates more, but they are affective on anyone, since they sow doubt and either cause people not to vote (in disgust) or sometimes change who they vote for.

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  8. Chesapean says:

    Hold on a sec, Dubner. What’s your logic here? Your argument seems to be:

    * Original Freakonomics research shows that media buys are ineffective.

    * Successful, corrupt governments spend more money on media bribes than any other form of coercion.

    * Therefore, Barack Obama’s media buys are good.

    It’s hard to know whether you mean Barack Obama is corrupt (and therefore “good”), or whether his media buys prove he is as smart as a corrupt official (and therefore “good”), or whether you regard John McCain as stupid because his approach to media seems consistent with Freakonomics’ original research.

    Such a panoply of confusion. What in fact, Dubner, is your point?

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