Political spending works, except when it doesn’t

Wasn’t this supposed to be the election in which “super PACs” and other outside groups took over American politics and swept Democrats out of office?

Judging from all the gnashing of teeth following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, that’s what a lot of pundits were expecting. And those expectations seemed to be coming true when, starting with the Republican primary race and then in the general election, wealthy conservative donors poured unprecedented amounts of cash into independent political spending groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads organizations and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates outside groups raised more than $1 billion in the this election cycle, more than three times what they took in during the 2008 campaign. Groups supporting Democrats accounted for some of that money, but far more was spent backing Republicans.

Yet it didn’t really work. As Times staff writers Matea Gold and Melanie Mason pointed out, the money might have influenced some House races, and it certainly kept some candidates (notably Newt Gingrich) alive longer in the GOP primary than they would have otherwise. But considering the outcome of the presidential race, and several close Senate races in which the GOP candidate dominated in outside spending yet still lost, it’s fair to wonder how much difference political cash really makes.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to big national contests. In California, several ballot measures in which one side raised tens of millions of dollars while the other raised barely enough to print a few lawn signs were won by the side that did little or no fund-raising. Three such lopsided campaigns involved Proposition 33, backed by auto insurers to the tune of $17.1 million while opponents raised only $275,700, which lost; death penalty initiative Proposition 34, whose proponents raised $8.1 million while opponents drummed up just $392,900, which also lost; and Proposition 38, the Molly Munger-backed tax hike initiative that raised $47.8 million compared to $42,300 by the other side, which lost. (All contribution figures used above come from


Of course, none of this proves that political spending is ineffective. Campaigns are won and lost for so many reasons, it would be impossible to list them all here. Academics and political consultants have been studying the impact of political ads for decades, and conclusions are hard to come by; judging from the analyses I’ve seen, about all that the finest minds of our generation can say is that political spending works -- except when it doesn’t.

Yet there are a few truisms. One is that personal wealth, which should make a difference because there are no limits on how much money a rich candidate can spend on his or her own campaign, doesn’t matter. Californians certainly already knew this with the failure in recent years of such big-money Senate hopefuls as Michael Huffington and Carly Fiorina and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and Mitt Romney’s defeat only added further evidence. But there is more evidence than just a few anecdotal cases; a 1999 study by Jeffrey Milyo of Tufts and Timothy Groseclose of Stanford found that personal wealth was an irrelevant factor in House campaigns. Meanwhile, another interesting study of House campaigns from the 1990s compared races in which the same two candidates faced off against each other multiple times, the only difference being how much money each candidate raised in the different contests; it found that campaign spending made very little difference in the outcome.

Moreover, it’s important to note that not all political spending goes to advertisements; some is spent on get-out-the-vote efforts. Campaign insiders for both Romney and President Obama believe the Obama side’s spending was more effective because it focused more on voter contact. Political ads also have a tendency to cancel each other out: When both sides are putting up attack ads painting opponents as incompetent, voters tend to figure out that ads might not be the best source of information.

Yet it’s still hard to get past situations, such as the three California ballot measures listed above, in which one side blankets the state with radio and TV ads while the other is silent -- and the big spender loses anyway. It’s possible that these advertisers might be trying sell a proposal that nobody wants to buy, but it’s more likely that voters are smarter than analysts tend to give them credit for -- that they seek out other sources of information before deciding, and recognize ads to be often misleading partisan blather.


That they’re wise, prudent, discerning (and good-looking) enough to read newspaper editorials, in other words.


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