One thing it doesn’t tell us is that the person with the most money has the best chance to win. Not only is money an imperfect reflection of popular support, it also doesn’t necessarily give you what you need to put together a winning campaign.
We shouldn’t be too dismissive, of course. Money enables you to pay for advertising and for staff, especially the organizers who are vital to corralling supporters in the early states.
But it’s notable that Sanders is raising all that money at a time when he’s been struggling to win over new converts, and that struggle has led to a lot of negative media stories with headlines like “Bernie Sanders Is in Trouble.”
Or look at Pete Buttigieg. He has run a remarkably effective fundraising campaign for a 30-something mayor of a small city. In the second quarter of the year, he raised $24.8 million. In the third quarter, he raised $19.1 million.
And what has the money produced? The RealClearPolitics poll average puts Buttigieg at 5.4 percent nationally, vying for fourth place with Kamala D. Harris. He does slightly better in Iowa, but he’s still in fourth place there. He might experience a surge of interest and support, but it probably won’t happen because he drops a few tens of millions on Iowa.
The lesson: Money is necessary to win a presidential nomination, but not sufficient.
That’s especially true when everyone seems to have plenty of money, at least among the top and mid-tier candidates. If you were the only one running thousands of Facebook ads, that would be one thing, but if your ads are jostling for attention with those of 10 other candidates, all the spending probably isn’t doing much good, other than forcing voters not to forget you exist.
Speaking of Facebook, the biggest political spender there is, of course, President Trump, who has been pouring money into ads on the platform all year. He has already spent millions on Facebook ads defending himself on impeachment just in the past few days. To what end? The ads are no doubt being watched by his most ardent supporters, or hate-watched by his opponents. But is anyone really being persuaded to change their minds about him?
As of his last quarterly report three months ago, Trump’s reelection campaign had already spent more than $150 million, if you include the outside groups supporting him. And yet he trails all the leading Democrats in pretty much every head-to-head matchup.
If you were sitting next to Mitch McConnell, he’d lean over and say, “See, I told you — there isn’t too much money in politics. This is all fine.”
That is most definitely not the point. Politicians still become captive to their donors, and there are lots of situations where big money sways elections. But those are more likely to happen lower down the ballot — House races, statehouse races, local races — where a corporation or super-rich individual can give a candidate so much help that the whole playing field is tilted.
Indeed, while so much money pours into presidential campaigns that another million here or there doesn’t really change anything, that’s not true in down-ballot races. And there some really important ones going on right now.
In Virginia, where Republicans narrowly control both houses of the state legislature, Democrats have a good shot to seize total control of state government in this November’s elections. That would mean they’ll not only be able to pass all kinds of progressive legislation that could positively affect people’s lives, it also means they’ll control redistricting after the 2020 Census.
This is also true of many of the state legislative contests that will be unfolding across the country in 2020, which could impact voting rights, redistricting and local legislative battles in all kinds of ways. Just ask Republicans — who swept state races in 2010 and used their new power to gerrymander and pass voter suppression laws to lock that power in for the years that followed — how important those races are.
And those races can turn on a relatively small amount of money. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from donating to a presidential candidate. If you’re inclined to give the one you like $20 or $100 or $1,000, go right ahead. But you might consider matching that donation with another to somebody who could really use it.