I never vote for anybody. I always vote against.
- Comedian WC Fields
The just-concluded 2020 election has been the most controversial in many years, and a lot of people have given this a great deal of thought. Some have decided that the secret of winning in politics is fraud. But a more careful analysis points to a very different explanation: Outspending your opponent is even more important.
Anyone skeptical about this need only check the record. “This year, the top-spending House candidates won 89.2 percent of the time,” reports the website opensecrets.org. “In the Senate, the top-spender won 71.9 percent of the time.” Even though this is a high percentage, in most years it has been even higher.
The 2020 election results were no fluke. Money has been the deciding factor in political races for at least the past two decades, and this is true for national, Congressional, and even city and state contests. Clearly, it provides an advantage that is especially helpful in close races.
As examples, one need only look at the two most recent elections for Senator in New York. In 2016, Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer easily defeated Republican challenger Wendy Long. In September of that year, Schumer was so confident of victory that he used $6.2 million of his own campaign funds to help Democratic Senate candidates in tight races in other states. That still left him with more than $20 million. Long, by comparison, was virtually unknown and had just $32,000. Schumer coasted to an easy and overwhelming victory, winning 71% of the vote.
Money (and the lack thereof) was also a factor when New York’s junior Senator, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, easily defeated opponent Chele Farley in the race for Senate in 2018. Gillibrand won with 67% of the vote. Already a Senator with ambitions for higher offices, Gillibrand easily raised $10 million-plus for her war chest. Farley, on the other hand, had only $1.2 million to work with and very little name recognition. Running a successful campaign against these obstacles proved to be an impossible task.
Still, simply outspending an opponent does not guarantee victory. In several Senate races this year, the Democratic candidate spent unprecedented amounts of money only to suffer defeat. At the same time, some Republicans whose strategy included spending heavily in “blue” districts also lost. In Minnesota’s 5th District, Democrat incumbent Rep. Ilhan Omar spent $4.5 million less than her opponent Lacy Johnson and still won by nearly 40 points.
Politics And The Very Wealthy
“Political campaigns cost a lot of money and require support from outside sources,” writes Forbes. Among those outside sources are political action committees (PACs).
The largest PACs, called Super PACs, can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. Although technically independent, these committees receive money from donors who are interested in supporting the candidates they think will shape the country the way they want.
“People have always given money to politicians, but Super PACs have enabled the extremely wealthy to super charge their giving,” says Chisun Lee, Deputy Director of the Brennan’s Center Election Reform Program.
Super PACs began growing in importance following a Supreme Court decision in 2010 called Citizens United. There are no legal limits on their spending or on contributions they make. In other words, a Super PAC can raise as much as it wants to from any American donor or business and spend as much as it wants to on elections.
As a result, it comes as no surprise that they get deeply involved in the election process. Since 2010, Super PACs have spent well in excess of $3 billion on federal elections alone, says Lee. Their total expenditures on the 2019-20 elections were just under $2 billion.
In both the 2018 and 2020 elections, a great deal of attention was focused on contributions made by many small donors.
“When you look at the numbers and take into account the spending through federal Super PACs you find that just 3,500 big donors who gave $100,000 each outspent the combined total of seven million small donors, each of whom contributed $200 or less,” says Lee. “It is really distressing when in a democracy so few people are able to outweigh the influence of seven million small donors.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, President Trump campaigned aggressively, holding many rallies in numerous states; Vice President Biden, on the other hand, generally followed events from his basement office and held very few rallies.
Yet Biden raised much more money than Trump did and outspent him by a very wide margin. In fact, his campaign is the first in history to raise $1 billion from donors. Biden heavily outspent Trump in swing states, which he ultimately won by narrow margins.
He also had much more support from super PACs and “dark money” groups, who give funds to influence elections but do not have to disclose the names of the donors. Having received so much in contributions, is it really a wonder that Biden is said to have won?
Overall, the 2020 election cycle is by far the most expensive ever. OpenSecrets estimated that the election will cost roughly $14 billion - twice as much as the 2016 contest. And the total could rise further with additional spending in the Georgia Senate runoffs.
Money talks everywhere but nowhere does it speak as loudly as it does in politics. And nowhere are the stakes as high.
Sources: www.ballotpedia.org; www.fec.gov; www.forbes.com; www.Investopedia.com; www.nytimes.com; www.opensecrets.org; www.timesunion.com; Forbes interview: “What Are Super Pacs And How Do They Impact Elections?”