Long-shot candidates raising heaps of cash have drawn notice in the past. In one especially memorable Democratic cash bonfire, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath lost by nearly 20 points to Republican leader Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky despite outspending McConnell by $25 million. In New York, Republican John Cummings raised $11 million running against Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and lost by 44 percentage points.
There are arguments that this isn’t a total waste; after all, increasing Democratic turnout in Greene’s district will help Democrats running statewide in Georgia, even if it doesn’t have any chance of defeating her. But mostly? Yes, in world in which a formal party organization allocated campaign funds to elections nationwide based on rational, party-wide strategy, these hopeless candidates would be starved for funds.
But I have good news for the folks who worry about it: It almost certainly doesn’t matter.
We’re living through an era of campaign finance abundance, even though most of the prevailing ideas about money in politics come from an era of scarcity. Loosened laws and regulations have brought big new sources of money — some disclosed, some not — into play. Technological change combined with partisan polarization has produced the phenomenon of big little money — millions of dollars raised in small increments, mostly apparently given by party-loyal voters responding to partisan cues.
Overall, there’s just a flood of money. Spending on federal elections alone in 2020 more than doubled the previous record; in fact, there was about as much spent on House and Senate campaigns in 2020 as there was spent on House, Senate and presidential elections combined in 2016.
What this means is that virtually every serious candidate in a competitive general election for the House of Representatives, Senate, or a governor’s office will be adequately funded. Sure, candidates could raise more, although there’s still some question about the extent to which campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns. And as has always been the case, some candidates won’t raise much money because they’re just really bad at running for office.
But unlike the situation 30 or 50 years ago, it’s unlikely that (say) a House candidate with a decent shot at winning won’t be able to afford to mount a serious campaign. All this is happening during an era of extremely partisan voting — which means that campaign spending is apt to have less impact than it did when more voters were willing to split tickets.
There’s a lot more to say about this new era of campaign finance abundance and how it should change the debates about regulating money in politics, the effects of money on electoral competition, worries about corruption, the place of money in the parties, and more. For example: Is big little money directed by party cues and routed through partisan portals properly considered “party” money? If so, which groups within the party have increased or decreased their influence as a result? Should small donors be thought of as party actors, similar perhaps to activists such as campaign volunteers? Or are they more like voters, who are able to influence party decisions in primary elections but aren’t really party actors properly speaking, since their role is to react to the choices that party actors give them.
One thing it means is that money that might seem misallocated to hopeless candidates is more of a rounding error than a real opportunity cost to the party. The most efficient use of small donations is still to lower-level candidates such as those running for state legislatures or school boards or other state and local elections. That’s where your $200 (or less!) will have the greatest effect, and where I would redirect a lot of campaign money — especially that given to presidential candidates — if it were up to me.
But Democrats almost certainly didn’t lose 2020 Senate races in North Carolina and Maine because McConnell’s opponent in Kentucky wasted millions, and Republicans spending money hopelessly trying to defeat Ocasio-Cortez in New York almost certainly didn’t cost them the House seats they needed to win a majority.
For better or worse — and I think it’s mostly for the better — there’s enough to go around. And even for some of it to be wasted.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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