Money can’t buy you love – not even in politics. Donors stuffed U.S. candidate coffers with $1.6 billion in the 2014 midterm elections alone. Contenders backed by a right-leaning fund affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers won almost 90 percent of their races. But an even bigger-spending Democratic group saw less than a fifth of its choices claim victory. It’s yet another reason to spend less on campaigns.
The moneybags are doing just the opposite, of course. Campaign expenditures totaled some $6.3 billion for the 2012 elections, the most expensive in history, according to contributions tracker Opensecrets.com. The record is destined to be short-lived. Kansas businessmen Charles and David Koch say they plan to shell out nearly $900 million in 2016 contests, including the battle for the White House.
It’s a dicey investment at best. In 2014, the Koch-linked Freedom Partners Action Fund’s heavy bets on Republican candidates helped the party sweep to a Senate majority and victory in a host of House races. The biggest donation to the political action committee was $4 million from Koch Industries.
The Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC, by contrast, financed mostly losers in 2014 – despite a $47 million war chest, almost double the size of Freedom Partners’ cache. Its biggest contributors included hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer, who chipped in $5 million, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave $2.5 million.
Republicans were going to do well last year in any event. The party in power, in this case Democrats, typically loses ground in midterm elections, and an unpopular president didn’t help. Yet the enormous gap between the two parties suggests money made little difference.
The 2012 presidential contest offers additional evidence that cash is overrated. Republican nominee Mitt Romney spent $131 million more than Barack Obama, but his share of the popular vote still came up 3 percentage points short of the incumbent’s tally.
There are lots of arguments for making it cheaper to run for office, including that it might reduce the outsized political influence of the very wealthy. The strongest reason, though, may also be the most practical: big spending doesn’t necessarily work.