In the run-up to this week's 2014 midterm elections, we were bombarded with articles about how this was, race-by-race, the most expensive election ever. Record amounts of money were spent by both sides in both senatorial and gubernatorial elections, and by and large, the races that were the most expensive were also the closest races.
Rarely is it explained why this is a bad thing.
The unsaid link is that all this money amounts to people trying to "buy" elections - billionaires like the Koch Brothers and Tom Steyer can supposedly open their coffers and the candidates they support are supposed to win. In 2012, it was Sheldon Adelson and Karl Rove raising and spending huge amounts of money to help Republican candidates - in an election where the GOP was slaughtered across the board. In 2014, it's Tom Steyer, whose $67 million SuperPAC NextGen Climate Action spent huge to defeat GOP candidates like Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner, who both cruised to victory.**
What those who have hyped up how expensive this election is won't tell you is that money doesn't buy elections.
Tom Cotton won by 17 percentage points. Corey Gardner by 5. David Perdue by 8. Joni Ernst by 9. Mitch McConnell by 15. Tom Tillis by 2.
Take those results to heart, and tell me how any of them correlate with this chart:
That's from NYU's Brennan Center, a left-leaning organization concerned about vote integrity and focusing on progressive reform (they're anti-ID, pro-campaign finance reform, etc.). This is money spent by candidates and party apparatuses, though. There's much more so-called "dark money" spent by outside groups, both for candidates and issue advocacy, that could have had a larger influence. How does that look? Again, from the Brennan Center:
What looks clear from this is that money didn't buy any elections. In the races where Democrats had the largest advantages - North Carolina and Colorado - Republicans still managed to win. In Alaska, the race is still too close to call, but Dan Sullivan is leading. Louisiana is going to a run-off, where Mary Landrieu is expected to lose.
The one race where it looked like the GOP had a decided money advantage was Kentucky, where McConnell won in a rout over Alison Lundergan Grimes. This will be a useful test case for us to demonstrate how money might affect an election.
For people who have paid attention to scholarly research on money and elections, that Democrats outspent Republicans yet still lost is not surprising in the least. Elisabeth Gerber, author of The Populist Paradox, wrote that "the empirical evidence provides further basis for rejecting the allegation that economic interest groups buy policy outcomes." And one of the most important studies in this area, by Freakonomics author and economist Steve Levitt, finds that doubling campaign spending can only buy a single percentage point of the vote.
According to those earlier Brennan Center numbers for the Kentucky senate race, pro-McConnell money was $58 million, while pro-Grimes money was $23 million. If we triple the pro-Grimes money, so that Grimes wins the money war $69m-$58m, then according to Levitt's research, Grimes should have won an extra two percentage points of the vote.
In other words, shifting the money battle toward Grimes would have meant that she'd have only lost by 13 percentage points instead of 15.
The only situations in which money really matters to the vote is in races that are extraordinarily close in which one side outspends the other by many, many multiples. We could look at the New York mayoral race in 2009, in which Michael Bloomberg spent over $100 million and won by less than 3 points, for an election in which money might have mattered. But the fact is that for the vast majority of elections - all of 2014 included - the races weren't close enough and the money not varied enough to really make a difference in even a single race.
Last night, big money interests didn't make much of a difference at all. Money rarely buys elections - and that held true once more.
* Note: this spending is with numbers as recent as possible and may not reflect final numbers. A lot of spending comes at the end of a campaign. Still, it would take a huge change to make these look radically different.
** Tom Steyer also spent a lot of money to defeat Scott Brown and Terri Land. Those were races that weren't supposed to be competitive in the first place, though.