February 27, 2012

Does Money Really Win Elections?

Most of the time, a candidate who wins an election has outspent their opponent in terms of advertising.  Does this necessarily mean that the election was bought?  It would seem that way, but may not be the case.  In 2008, Barack Obama outspent John McCain by nearly 3 to 1.  They say those numbers were closer to 5 to 1 in the closing weeks of that election.  Obama won.  Does this mean that he bought the election, or was he going to win regardless of the money spent?  The answer to this question might surprise you.  I know it caught me off guard.

I came across this theory recently while listening to a podcast from Freakonomics.com.  It was entitled, Does Money Really Buy Elections?  By the way, I am currently obsessed with listening to Freakonomics podcasts via my smartphone.  I just found them via the TuneIn App on my new Droid and I can’t get enough.  Their podcasts can also be easily accessed via the Freakonomics RSS Feed.

Getting back to the point.  The theory is that money may not actually be the deciding factor in who wins elections.  Sure, the candidate who spends the most usually wins.  Or, should we say that the candidate who wins is the candidate who was able to raise the most money?  The point here is pretty simple.  Regardless of money raised or money spent, the most popular candidate is going to win the election.  It just so happens that the most popular candidate is also able to raise the most money for their campaign war-chest.

Let’s look at 2008 for example.  We might as well face it, a democrat was probably going to win no matter who got the nomination.  The country was in a recession, unemployment was rising, the stock market was crashing and the Bush administration was bailing out the crumbling banking industry with taxpayer funds.  People were fed up with government.  Any democrat who campaigned with a promise of change was going to win.  That democrat became Barack Obama.

Obama’s popularity during the 2008 election season rivaled that of a rock star.  His ability to deliver flawless speeches was unmatched by his opponents.  His promise to bring hope and change was very uplifting and encouraging to his supporters.  Some even argue that his skin color had something to do with his popularity.  John McCain never had a chance.  His popularity spiked after he chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.  He could never touch the popularity of Obama though.  Hope and change were the most popular slogans in that election year, and they belonged to Obama.

Due to Obama’s wild popularity, he was able to raise a record amount of campaign funds.  Combine that with the fact that he opted not to accept public funding, which helped contribute to the huge disparity between his and McCain’s fund raising.  Because Obama was able to raise more funds, he was able to spend more on advertising.  You see where I’m going here?  Obama was going to win anyway.  He only spent more because he had more to spend.  He got more to spend because he was more popular.  It’s that simple.

So it isn’t money that causes a candidate to win an election.  Lack of money is not the reason a candidate loses.  Rather, money is more like a symptom as it relates to election fund raising and spending.  More popular equals more money.  Less popular equals less money.  It kind of makes me wonder, why is so much money wasted on elections if it isn’t a deciding factor?

Readers:  Do you agree with this theory?  Why do you think so much money is spent on elections if it doesn’t really matter?  Is it just to appease the contributors to the election campaigns?


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