Getting Money out of Elections?

Wouldn't it be nice if a candidate was more worried about filling their "war chest" with ideas and solutions instead of cash?

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Stephen Dubner, co-author of the New York Times best-seller Freakonomics. We discussed “the hidden side of everything,” namely, finding unexpected insights buried in data. (My resulting post focused on asking smarter questions to find answers lurking in piles of data.)

Since it was the day before the Illinois primary, I asked him to expand on a recent claim that campaign spending has a very limited effect on election outcomes. Research by his Freakonomics co-author, Steven Leavitt, found that doubling spending only increased a candidate’s share of the popular vote by 1%.

Recent primaries have reinforced the uneasy relationship between spending and results. Dubner mentioned that candidates who garner more contributions tend to be those who are more active and involved with their campaigns. They’re often more charismatic. These factors contribute to their popularity at the polls, too, making it difficult to separate the effect of spending from other factors.

My curiosity piqued, I asked Dubner whether they had looked at the effect of spending on municipal elections, where campaign “war chests” are often more like piggy banks. The Freakonomics team hasn’t done any research on this aspect, but Dubner speculated that a little bit of money may go farther on the local level, where name recognition is harder to come by.

That makes sense. With national or state-level elections, the media is focused on a couple of big races. At the local level, the media’s attentions are splintered among all the races, especially in a major media market like Chicago.

A year ago, campaign signs were in full bloom ahead of the local city council seats and mayoral election, which got me thinking about the role of signs in elections.

Last week, a Facebook comment about the lack of “re-elect” signs re-ignited the thought. In municipal elections, candidates often face very tight budgets. Unlike at the national level (or state level, particularly in Illinois, it seems), local politicians aren’t in it for a career. Many do it on the side because they want to make a difference. (Call me Pollyanna if you must.) Hence, they can’t afford to sink huge sums of their own money into a race, nor do they have the time or resources to do a lot of fundraising.

Second, many local politicians will run for several different offices over time. Hence, the savvy politician tries to re-use signs, material and goodwill as much as possible. (Plus, I doubt those fancy signs are recyclable.)

Which leads me to this sign I saw while out walking just before the election:

Look closely - the candidate taped the new desired office over the previous sign. On a windy day, the taped piece was flapping around.

So what exactly is the role of money in local campaigns? I think we’d be better off if we could get money out of elections. When I asked Dubner, he said the candidate who attempted to not fundraise – especially at the federal level – would have a hard time finding a staff willing to gamble on such a campaign.

He’s probably right, but I would love to see campaigns focus on issues without worrying about fundraising and glad-handing. Wouldn’t you?

Government budgets – at all levels – are tighter than any time in recent memory. Shouldn’t campaign budgets reflect disciplined, careful, strategic spending? I would be curious to analyze the relationship between those who fundraise more and those more willing to raise taxes. In both cases, the politician is spending someone else’s money – which they tend to treat very differently than their own.


One response to “Getting Money out of Elections?

  1. Glad to see you bring up name recognition. I recall seeing an academic study a few years ago that showed money in campaigns was critical to equal out name recognition among voters and if a candidate did not have enough money to reach a certain point, they had no chance. There was a cap on the effect but once the cap was reached the chances of winning an election grew tremendously. In other words, their issue positions and other factors began to play a big role in the outcome at that point.
    I’ve always thought a somewhat cynical way to go to a full publicly financed system would be to create a tax on big businesses to pay for campaigns. Most would cry foul saying it would have a detrimental effect on the economy but in reality it probably would not. Big business already budgets for hundreds of millions of dollars (maybe into the billions at this point) for lobbyists, campaign donations, and interest group (now Super PACs as well) contributions. Changing this money into a tax for the publicly financed system would have a negligible effect on the big businesses but no one would ever go for that one. Just poking fun at them more than anything! Great post!

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