Raise your signs. Hold your wallet.

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Don't Waste Money on Hillary Clinton

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Seth Masket of the Washington Post read something foolish about Hillary Clinton and had this reaction:

Good advice, but don't stop there. This is a good opportunity to go a lot further and tell Democrats: Don’t give to Clinton at all. You’ll be wasting your money.

What about giving to Republicans? Sure, you can give to Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and the rest of the gang. But unless you’re loaded, your contributions aren’t going to make much difference. If you want to go ahead anyway, be sure to donate now. By next spring, when the nomination is decided and the winner is raising money for the general election, your dollars will be wasted. 

Clinton, who so far has no strong primary opposition, is expected to raise unheard-of amounts, perhaps measured in the billions. Why won't she need those resources when she faces the Republican candidate in the general election, the one who will get money from Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or some reclusive hedge-fund billionaire? 

Believe it or not, general-election presidential campaigns are where political spending matters the least. Both Clinton and the Republican nominee will have more than enough money to saturate us with ads. But, as political scientists have found, any effects of those messages wear off quickly. By that point in the campaign, voters are already being bombarded with information about the presidential contenders from other sources. 

Campaign spending, in short, has diminishing returns. The first dollars spent are valuable, especially in races where voters don't have a lot of information and where it's too early for their party to guide them. Many people won't vote for someone they've never heard of. And if you manage to convince voters of one good thing about yourself or one bad thing about the opponent, it can make a difference.

But voters won't suffer from a shortage of information about Clinton. Why, then, is she working so hard to raise money that won't matter? Because she can. From a candidate's point of view, anything that has even a tiny chance of helping is worth doing, especially if the costs of pursuing it are small. 

Campaign staffers also have a personal stake in raising every dollar (and running every ad and engaging in every Twitter fight):  The more they do, after all, the more they can claim to have accomplished. 

If you really want to affect your party, contribute to candidates at all levels in advance of the primaries. Or give in U.S. House general elections and in lower-level elections. Where money is scarce and information sources are limited or entirely absent, small amounts can have a big impact. 

So be smart: Don’t waste campaign donations on the candidate who is already the presumptive Democratic nominee. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net