What if the fuss over big money in elections is mostly over nothing?
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz at the Crystal Ball reports today on his analysis of the effects of outside spending on Senate races in 2014, and finds a big, fat zero. (I’m referring to direct spending by groups other than the candidates and other formal party organizations.) Instead, the factors that mattered, he finds, were the balance between the parties in the state, the role of incumbency and the overall tilt toward Republicans in that election year.
Some important caveats are in order. The effects of election spending are notoriously hard to nail down, and it’s possible that a different way of analyzing the numbers might yield a different result. In addition, just one set of elections in one year are included, and something the analysis doesn’t account for could be messing with the results.
As Abramowitz explains further, the hotly contested elections attract big outside money for both sides, so we can’t know whether something would change if only one side was dumping tons of cash into a campaign.
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Still, I believe these results, because they fit with what we know about campaign financing in general. Spending is subject to sharply diminishing returns.
Overall, campaign spending has the biggest impact when voters have little other information. The most important piece of information for voters is a candidate’s party affiliation, so money is more influential in primaries than in general elections.
In addition, the more media attention a campaign gets, the less money matters because voters learn about the candidates from sources other than ads.
The findings provide more evidence that the fears on this issue are overstated. And they give us more support for a “floors, not ceilings” approach to campaign-finance reform.