Correction to This Article
This column, about political candidates who use their personal wealth in attempts to get elected, incorrectly cited Terry McAuliffe as an example. The column said that McAuliffe spent millions in his unsuccessful 2009 bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Virginia; in fact, he spent none of his own money in the campaign.
Monday Fix

The Fix: For rich candidates who invest in themselves, no reliable returns

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

Even as the public's disdain for politics and politicians rises to historic levels, a new crop of millionaires -- and billionaires -- is spending freely from their fortunes in hopes of winning elected office.

Former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon (R) has dumped $21.5 million into her race for Connecticut's open Senate seat and could spend upward of $50 million before November. Real estate investor Jeff Greene (D) has put $6 million into ads designed to introduce him to Florida Democratic primary voters in advance of his Senate showdown with Rep. Kendrick B. Meek on Aug. 24. And, in California, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina used $5 million of her own money to win the Republican nomination last month and now finds herself in a dead heat against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) heading into the fall.

Of course, Fiorina's spending in California is small potatoes compared to the $91 million (yes, you read that right) of her own money that former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman (R) has already given to her run for the California governorship. And, in Florida, former health-care chief executive Rick Scott (R) has already put nearly $23 million into a gubernatorial primary race against state Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Even as the political landscape grows crowded with wealthy people ready to spend whatever it takes to win, a new study from the National Institute of Money in State Politics -- a venture funded by the Ford Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, among others -- suggests that self-funding candidates rarely meet with success in modern politics.

Between 2000 and 2009, just more than one in 10 (11 percent) of self-funding candidates -- defined as those for whom half or more of total money raised came from themselves -- seeking state offices won. That dismal percentage came even though the approximately 6,000 self-financing candidates donated nearly $1 billion of their own money -- or 12 percent of all money raised by all candidates during that 10-year period.

(Side note: Whitman's spending has already eclipsed that of the deepest-pocketed candidate of the last decade. New York businessman Tom Golisano spent $74 million of his own money to win 14 percent of the vote running a third-party candidacy for governor in 2002.)

What gives? How can so many wealthy people lose so often despite being spared the daily -- and sometimes hourly -- distraction of asking (and asking) other people for money? Money is, after all, the mother's milk of politics, isn't it?

Yes and no, said Democratic pollster Fred Yang, a partner in the firm Garin Hart Yang Research.

"There are three important 'm's' in campaigns -- message, mobilization, and money," Yang wrote in an e-mail to the Fix. "Self-funders obviously take care of one of the 'm's', but to be successful, it usually takes more than that."

Yang added that when the message of the campaign becomes centered on the money the candidate is spending, defeat almost always follows. "For the self-funders who win, the money helps more effectively get out messages," he noted. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg fit in that category.

Experience matters, too. California Republican Dan Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said self-funders tend to start their political careers aiming for big offices -- Senate, governor -- and, as a result, have little room to grow into the role of candidate. "There's a benefit in starting a play off-Broadway so you can work out the bugs before you get to the big time," Schnur said.

Dave Beattie, a Florida Democratic pollster, added that the experience of asking for money even within a campaign is instructive -- and a step most self-funders skip. "When a candidate hones their pitch asking for money, they are practicing their policy positions and getting asked tough questions," Beattie said. "It is harder to get someone to contribute than to vote for you, so when you practice asking for money, you get better at asking for votes."

So far this cycle, it's been a mixed (money) bag for self-funding candidates. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe spent millions in an unsuccessful bid for his party's gubernatorial nomination in Virginia. Ditto ski tycoon Les Otten (R) in the Maine governor's race and hair-care products magnate Farouk Shami (D) in the Texas gubernatorial contest.

But McMahon's wealth helped drive onetime front-runner and former representative Rob Simmons (R) from the Connecticut race (although he's kind of but not really back in the primary now), and Scott's spending has catapulted him to a lead in Florida polls over McCollum. And Whitman won a self-funding showdown last month against California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- who spent a meager $25 million(!) of his own money.

Recent history suggests, however, that winning will be the exception rather than the rule for this latest crop of cash-laden candidates. Spending scads of money is, after all, easy. Spending it smartly is the trick.

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