Remember Rick Perry? Voters weren't as impressed as donors were.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

What Campaign Donations Can't Buy

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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“Money can’t buy you everything.”

“The best things in life are free.”

“I don't care too much for money. … Money can't buy me love.”

Turns out timeless clichés and the Beatles understood the 2016 election season before the rest of us did. All that dangerous, dastardly outside money that people have been worrying about since the Citizens United decision? Stunningly irrelevant.

The New York Times has a nice summary of campaign fundraising and spending to date.

Hillary Clinton has done well in both traditional and PAC fundraising, but that might be effect as much as cause: The obvious front-runner and already-crowned establishment candidate is going to do well in fundraising, even if the money isn’t needed. So let’s look at the Republican race.

QuickTake U.S. Campaign Finance

By June, Jeb Bush was the GOP PACman; he had raised more than $100 million, and spent over $10 million of it. Second in such fundraising is Ted Cruz, who raised $38.4 million in outside money. The two of them together have 60 percent more cash than all the other candidates combined. They are currently tied for fourth place in polling.

Meanwhile, Scott Walker, who used to be running third in the PAC race, has already dropped out, as have Rick Perry and his $13.8 million worth of outside funds. Marco Rubio, with a comparatively dainty $17.3 million , is doing better than the three early leaders in outside fundraising — and yet he’s still being blown away in polling by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who have raised, to a first approximation, zero in outside funds.

As Paul Blumenthal, Sam Stein and Scott Conroy write at the Huffington Post: “According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, outside groups -- super PACs and political 'nonprofits' -- have already poured in more than $33 million to promote Republican candidates in the primary campaign through mass communication like television, radio, online advertising, direct mail and phone-banking. ... Meanwhile, two candidates whose most significant source of outside help has been free media attention -- Trump and Carson -- have consistently remained the top two candidates in both national and statewide polls.”

Where are all those shadowy billionaires we were warned out? The ones subverting American democracy with their ill-gotten lucre ? The lucre is being spent, in vast amounts. But $200 million in PAC funds is no match for a billionaire openly campaigning to get a hold on the levers of political power, and a neurosurgeon on book tour. No wonder Larry Lessig’s single-issue campaign to get money out of politics isn’t going anywhere.

How are Trump and Carson doing it? It’s that free media. While campaign ads may work (campaigns are certainly convinced that they do), they’re no match for getting your face on the nightly newscast. People tune out advertising, even when they haven’t gotten up to get a snack or go to the bathroom. It’s much better to have your candidate talked about on the program itself. And boy, we’ve certainly been talking about Donald Trump.

Of course, we also talked about Ebola. It wouldn't poll well. Carson and Trump obviously thrive not only because they get attention but also because they appeal to a GOP base that is rebelling against the party’s establishment. The establishment candidates -- which is to say, the ones tapped into longstanding networks of advisers, donors and campaign staff -- are the ones who are doing best on the PAC front … and nonetheless taking a beating at the polls.

This doesn't quite mean that money doesn’t matter. It tells us that money is at best an amplifier. It cannot make a terrible candidate into a winner, and it cannot overcome broad and strong democratic preferences. And frankly, I don’t find that surprising, because it’s consistent with what I know about lobbying. Ask a lobbyist , and you’re apt to hear that money can get you in the door of a lawmaker's office but is not getting you out with much unless you can also explain to this politician how your proposal is going to a) make people better off and therefore b) encourage more people to vote for that politician. In Washington, the ultimate currency remains votes, not cash.

One could say that money doesn’t matter of our existing campaign finance rules: Rick Perry had plenty of PAC money, but he still had to drop out because that money couldn’t be used to pay his campaign staff. Even looking at the campaigns that still have plenty of ordinary contributions, it’s hard to tease out any relationship between outside funds and doing well at the polls. If money mattered as much as those who excoriate the Citizens United decision seem to believe, Jeb Bush should be walking away with this election. Instead, he’s already starting to look like an also-ran.

Meanwhile, we should also count the cost of some of those campaign reforms: They’ve helped sideline the political parties' establishment leadership, and helped create the current partisan gridlock that so many people lament. People keep asking why John Boehner can’t control his caucus, even though the answer is obvious: He has neither carrots nor sticks with which to keep them in line. He can’t use earmarks to give anything, and he can’t take anything away, because parties no longer control either ballot access or fundraising the way they once did. What’s left? Jawboning them about the good of the party, which he has tried, endlessly, with little success. At this point, both the Democratic and Republican parties look more like heritage brands than the powerful institutions they used to be.

One by one, we’ve stripped away the means that parties used to control their membership: replaced party bosses with primary elections, limited the ability of big donors to directly fund and influence campaigns, cracked down on earmarks and other pork-barrel policies, torn down the congressional institutional structures that used to let a few powerful politicians essentially control what bills made it to a vote. Each step was hailed as a progressive move toward a more flourishing democracy, and perhaps they were. But the more perfect our democracy gets, the more it seems to tend towards chaos. Witness the astonishing longevity of Trump as an electoral force.

So far this election season, the good news seems to be that all that outside, unregulated money isn’t nearly as powerful as people thought. Oddly, that may also be the bad news.

  1. Though if you include non-PAC outside funds, he’s almost competitive with Cruz.

  2. Full disclosure: My husband works for the nonprofit libertarian magazine Reason, which has one of the most famous of those billionaires, David Koch, on the board. When my husband and I were engaged, he was the recipient of a one-year journalism fellowship from the Charles Koch Foundation.

  3. Full disclosure: In the supreme irony of my life as a libertarian columnist, my father spent years running a trade association for the New York tri-state area’s heavy construction industry. And yes, Dad, I do know what paid for college, so a heartfelt thanks to New York City’s infrastructure-building industry.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net