A Welcome Midterm Lesson: Cash Alone Won't Win Elections

Money plus weak candidate does not equal victory

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With the midterm elections receding into the past--along with the losses of Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon, big spenders both--people are asking questions about the ultimate impact of campaign spending in the 2010 races. American politicians threw a combined $4.2 billion into their campaigns this year, but many onlookers have since concluded that a candidate's personal finances are, at best, one variable among many. Below, a sampling of reflections and advice for millionaires contemplating a run:

  • Play Kingmaker, Not Candidate  Ezra Klein at The Washington Post points out that "If you've got $140,000,000, you could do a lot more to change the country than bankroll your own candidacy. That sort of money could tip a half-dozen (or maybe a few dozen, depending on how good you are at this) close elections toward the candidate who thinks most like you--and in the new, post-Citizens United era, no one will know it was you spending it ... And then, when one of your candidates eventually becomes president, you can just get them to appoint you to the Cabinet position of your choice. And you'll probably have enough money left over to start a think tank or endow a research center or enlarge an existing institution devoted to pushing the issues you consider important."

  • If You Must Run, Start Out Modest  If you're a would-be pol looking to get your feet wet, Matt Yglesias at Think Progress recommends that you "self-finance a campaign for Mayor or State Treasurer or something. Try to do a good job. And then parlay your vast wealth into a leg up in your run for a major office. Politics is difficult. People who've run successful statewide campaigns in the past have real skills that money can't easily substitute for."

  • Candidates Matter...  Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post breaks it down. "Why doesn't money equal victory in politics?" he asks. "For the same reason it doesn't buy you happiness. Money can put a politician in the game by paying for lots of TV ads and the best of the best consultants, but it can't close the deal with voters. A weak candidate with lots of money is still a weak candidate."

  • ...But Make No Mistake--Money Does Too  An editorial in the Los Angeles Times points out that "the big corrupting factor in politics is not so much the Meg Whitmans and their personal millions as the campaign contributors we have no way of identifying ... In the absence of workable public financing systems, meaningful contribution limits or strict disclosure rules, the job of resisting undue influence is left mostly to individual voters, who will not learn the deeper truths about candidates or issues from 30-second TV or radio spots." So, the editorial asks, "should we conclude from this that money doesn't unduly influence elections? Probably not."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.