Does Money Really Buy Elections? (Ep. 57)

Mitt Romney won big in New Hampshire, but his opponents are vowing to push on in South Carolina. Which means stepping up their pleas for cash. In an e-mail to supporters, Rick Santorum wrote:

We must show real progress tonight and redouble our efforts … That’s why my campaign launched the “Game On” Moneybomb, and why we need your help right now. As you already know, we are facing serious and well-funded opposition for the nomination.

That’s the kind of language that confirms one of the biggest truisms in politics: money buys elections.

But how true is that truism?

That’s the question Kai Ryssdal and I tackle in our latest Marketplace podcast. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

In a paper that tried to isolate the effect of spending in campaigns, here’s what Steve Levitt found:

LEVITT: When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose one percent of the popular vote. So we’re talking about really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote.

What Levitt’s study suggests is that money doesn’t necessarily cause a candidate to win — but, rather, that the kind of candidate who’s attractive to voters also ends up attracting a lot of money. So winning an election and raising money do go together, just as rain and umbrellas go together. But umbrellas don’t cause the rain. And it doesn’t seem as if money really causes  electoral victories either, at least not nearly to the extent that the conventional wisdom says. For every well-funded candidate who seems to confirm that money buys elections (paging Michael Bloomberg), you can find counterexamples like Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, Steve Forbes, and Tom Golisano.

And take a look at the Iowa caucuses last week. Rick Perry was the top spender, buying $4.3 million worth of ads — which got him only 10 percent of the vote. Santorum, meanwhile, spent only $30,000 on ads (the least of any candidate) and practically tied Romney — who spent  $1.5 million this time around on Iowa ads, versus $10 million in 2008.

In this podcast, you’ll also hear from one former big-spending presidential candidate who’s now convinced that money isn’t what matters most: Rudy Giuliani.

GIULIANI: I tell candidates, it’s always better to be the candidate with the most money, but you can win without it.

Here’s where you can listen to Marketplace on a station near you.


A few weeks ago on this site Ian Ayers seemed to be justifying wealth redistribution because of the excess influence money buys in politics...

"Indeed, part of Brandeis’s concern was not income equality for its own sake but rather the consequences of income inequality on democracy..."

This article seems to cast some significant on his justification.


I believe money helps greatly.... but the most important is the support a candidate receives from the media. We can't argue the fact that some way, seems to be out of thin air, that Santorum received huge media support in Iowa before he ever saw any big increase in his polling numbers. When his media presence increased (free advertising) his poll numbers sky rocketed. Our society and its thinking is managed by our media... if a favorite broadcaster/news anchor mentions something remotely possible the masses of the American public take it as 100% fact. Wake up!!! There is more to this than we want to believe... do some research for yourself and stop taking quotes from uneducated or biased sources.


I was disappointed that this report didn't include any discussion of third party candidates and the effects of money on their campaigns. My inkling is that the first few dollars matter a lot more than the last million, so that the initial donations create that "momentum" that converts "money leads causes popularity" into "popularity causes donations." In other words, I wish you had looked at regression and the timing of donations vs. popularity.


I thought every body new that good looks and charm won elections.


My question is methodological. The study authors were "holding other variance constant," ie, taking covariates of some sort. If they happened to take a covariate that was a good proxy for money, that could suck all the variance out of the "money" variable and make it look weak, when it in fact isn't. I'd need to see what was held constant before I had faith in the 1% finding.

Your Hero

The paper this article is based around seems to be about 20 years old and is based primarily on data from the '70s and '80s.

Today our biased media and the political ads are so overwhelmingly negative it creates a very divisive and hostile atmosphere where the majority of people(who seem evermore disinterested in politics) vote AGAINST a candidate rather than for one.

I'm sure it's always been like that to some extent, but I would be interested to see more recent and relevant data.


That segment was a weak presentation. "Money" (a term that for the most part = variety of powerful interests) + the savy to be seen as genuine while serving business interests (backed by the military) over the public interest = the norm. Check out the free movies "The Power Principle" and "Lifting the Veil: Barack Obama & the Failure of Capitalist Democracy" at for great content on American power politic$


I'm wondering if the fact that the elections looked at were rematches could have skewed the findings, even if the kind of politicians that participate in rematches are no different from politicians in general. That is, once a voter has been convinced to vote for one candidate and votes for them in the first election, it might be much harder to change their mind for the second election (unless the winning candidate turned out either phenomenally good or phenomenally bad) than it would be if they'd never voted in a race between those two candidates before.

If you could somehow access two alternate universes where the same candidates ran against each other in the same district, but in one universe the Democrat spent way more money and in the other the Republican spent way more money (and in both universes, the two candidates had never run against each other before), then if you did a study based on that instead of on rematch elections, the observed influence of money might be greater. It also might be the same as it is in the real study, but it's possible the rematch aspect was a confounding factor – and one that might be difficult if not impossible to control for, seeing as how we can't actually access alternate universes.


Joan Carl

Nobody seems to remember that money buys ads
as well as people. The people believe the ads which
are full of lies and deceits.