The Washington Post reported yesterday that the world was not flat. Actually, the Post reported something just as obvious: Money doesn’t buy elections.
The Post, using information from the Center for Responsive Politics, reports that “out of 58 candidates who used $500,000 or more of their money on federal races in 2010, fewer than one in five won. Eight of the top 10 self-funders this cycle lost . . . .”
In a follow-up piece, the Post admitted that this is no surprise: “The lesson learned Tuesday is one we seem to relearn every election cycle. Money only buys candidates the ability to get their message out. If that message neither resonates with nor is to the liking of voters, they will not vote for you.” Of course, none of this is news to Make No Law readers. Robert Frommer and Steve Simpson have already covered this ground.
The Post counts itself as a fan of campaign finance “reform.” But if a candidate’s own money cannot buy elections, why all the hand-wringing about “corporate money,” “union money,” and money from “outside groups” that might be used to speak about politics following First Amendment victories in Citizens United, SpeechNow.org, and other cases? Is that money magically effective at “buying elections” when “candidate money” is admittedly not? No, of course not. Ultimately, the Post’s pieces show that voters control elections. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and you can’t get people to vote for something or someone they don’t support just by spending a lot of money on ads.
While we commend the Post for its reporting yesterday, we do have to note one error it made. According to the Post, 2010’s results “continue a long tradition of ambitious but failed bids for political office by self-financing tycoons . . . .” But there really is no such “tradition,” much less a “long” one. As recently as the early 1970’s, self-funded candidates did not really exist. Those with wealth that were interested in politics instead supported others as candidates. Stewart Mott, a General Motors heir, famously financed presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to the Democratic establishment in 1968. His contribution of $400,000 to Senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign earned Mott a spot on Nixon’s enemies list.
Only since very low limits on campaign contributions were enacted and upheld by the Supreme Court has the recent phenomenon of the “self-funded millionaire politician” come about. One thing, however, has not changed since the early 1970’s: Money did not buy elections back then either. Neither of Mr. Mott’s favored candidates was ever elected president.