It isn't what you think.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Don't Waste Your Money on Trump or 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.
Read More.
a | A

Have some money you want to donate, with the goal of bringing about political change? Whatever you do, don’t give it to Hillary Clinton. Or Donald Trump. It isn't that there's anything particularly wrong with either candidate. It's that money donated to presidential general-election candidates is mostly wasted.

This is the lesson the Koch brothers have apparently learned. In National Review, Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson report that the Koch operation is spending nothing on the presidential election in this cycle as part of an overall retrenchment. Yet they still will be spending plenty, reportedly, on lower-profile state and local politics, as well as sinking money into U.S. congressional races, including $42 million on Senate contests.

It’s unclear what the Kochs' motives are. Maybe they just want to lower their profile as the national Big Bads, as they are portrayed by Democrats and much of the “neutral” media, which tends to have a bias against campaign spending. But as Lee Drutman at Polyarchy says, whatever prompted the shift, it appears they’ll be putting their money where it will do them a lot more good.

To understand why campaign contributions are less useful in presidential general-election races, think of the overall information environment. In a primary election for the state legislature, voters will often know nothing about the candidates -- not even their names. So money will buy name recognition, and then it will buy voter knowledge of one or two positive things about the candidate, even if that information is limited to someone's qualifications for the job or general ideology or even just a slogan. These factors drive voters' decisions, research shows. 

Now consider the presidential general election and what you already know about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, months before November. Even if neither of them ran another ad, we’ll all learn plenty because the media covers their every cough and hiccup. Even those people who pay little attention to politics wind up fairly well-informed.

The spending also has diminishing returns: Highlighting the 15th way that Trump is a boorish misogynist is not going to move a lot of voters who weren't already convinced by the first 14 examples.

Yes, the presidency is more important than any other single office. But control of legislative chambers is important, too, meaning that spending in House and Senate races in the handful of competitive races that will determine congressional majorities is going to be an excellent investment. The same is true at the state and local levels.

If the goal of campaign contributions is to buy access to elected officials to influence public policy, rather than just to affect election outcomes, then your money is probably better spent at the congressional or state and local levels anyway. 

So, donors: Stop wasting your money on presidential general elections.

  1. Some of the reorganization may be related to their lack of enthusiasm for Donald Trump as the Republican candidate, but it apparently goes well beyond that.

  2. The most important is simply party affiliation, which alone drives more of the vote than anything else. That’s the main reason spending in primaries (where the candidates aren’t divided by party) usually has more of an effect than spending in general elections.

  3. Granted, this is less true for spending on get-out-the-vote operations – and it’s worth mentioning that if a presidential campaign can increase turnout, then the rest of the party’s ticket benefits. But this doesn’t change the overall point.

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:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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