Every American knows that money buys elections, that votes come with a price tag. Or, you know, we assume. Given new reports of one millionaire's investment in the Virginia gubernatorial race, it's worth testing that assumption. So, using data from the Center for Responsive Politics, we did.
The link between the two makes intuitive sense. More money means more television ads or mailings, which likely means more support on Election Day. But there are a ton of variables at play, so it can be hard to differentiate between the role of money (did more TV ads spur more votes) and the communications themselves (were some ads better than others)? There are turnout issues, questions of candidate viability, scandals. So many things go into campaigns, but few are as trackable as contributions.
Last Tuesday, Terry McAuliffe was elected governor of Virginia by a very small margin. As Politico reported on Monday, McAuliffe had a strong ally in that fight: California businessman Tom Steyer. Steyer is a very wealthy man. He poured $8 million into McAuliffe's race, according to Politico, funding TV spots, online ads, and door-to-door canvassing. Steyer's main priority is the environment, as The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza noted in a look at Obama's second term priorities in September. In Virginia, the Steyer-funded NextGen focused on areas of the state vulnerable to sea level rise form climate change to oppose Republican Ken Cuccinelli, a climate change denier.
Erin Lehane’s turnout operation was going door to door, particularly in Virginia’s coastal Hampton Roads area and on six college campuses throughout the state, hammering away at the message that Cuccinelli is an extremist on the environment and, well, everything else. … [T]he field component of NextGen had collected 10,000 pledge cards on college campuses — asking voters to commit to participating on Nov. 5 — and hit 62,000 doors in the days immediately before the vote.
Impressive. But effective? Field programs, the conventional wisdom goes, only account for a few percentage points in a race. A look at the county-by-county results from the Huffington Post shows that in the Hampton Roads area, in the southeastern part of the state, McAuliffe didn't do as well as President Obama in 2012 — though Obama outperformed McAuliffe in most of the state. So what role did that money play?