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Are presidential campaigns worth the huge cost?

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has $ 141 million more in the bank than his rival

Author: Charlotte Gifford

September 25, 2020

The election campaign for the President of the USA is an expensive undertaking. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney together spent nearly $ 1.12 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

While US elections have almost always been an expensive proposition, over time the cost has only skyrocketed. Between Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, the amount spent on the presidential election increased more than 250 times, even when the numbers are adjusted for inflation.

There’s an obvious reason candidates feel they outperform their opponents. Throughout history, most of the presidential candidates have been the ones who have spent the most on campaigning. Throwing money in the election, therefore, seems like the logical conclusion. As Mark Hanna, a US Senator, once said, “In politics, two things are important. One is money and I can’t remember what the other is. “

But just because there is a link between campaign spending and election victories doesn’t mean that money is the deciding factor. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate among political scientists as to whether campaign spending has any meaningful impact on election results.

Money well spent
In September it was reported that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden far outperformed Trump in the election campaign. According to campaign officials, Biden will have $ 141 million more in the bank than his rival by entering the final leg of the race. If money determines the election result, it suggests that Biden may be on the way to victory.

But while the larger funder increases a presidential candidate’s chances of winning, it is not a guarantee of success. There are many examples of election candidates who spent a lot of money and did not win the vote.

In some cases, a larger amount can be spent to offset other issues. As Brian Libgober, political scientist and assistant professor at the University of California at San Diego, explains, the candidates with the most money sometimes self-finance. Reliance on their own money rather than donations can reflect their own weaknesses as candidates. “Often these are particularly wealthy, self-financed candidates who are able to raise funds without necessarily having the qualities that make a candidate electoral, such as relationships with major constituencies, candidacy experience, charisma, a compelling political platform, and so on. ” he said.

Michael Bloomberg, who ran for president in 2020, is one such example. Although Bloomberg was close to $ 1 billion, its poor performance on the debate stage was a major reason for this.

Another prominent example that proves that money doesn’t guarantee election success is President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. The $ 398 million he spent campaigning was almost half the amount his opponent Hilary Clinton spent had. As Libgober emphasizes, Trump would clearly not have won “if campaign spending had been decisive in the presidential election.”

Of course, Trump benefited from a number of advantages his rival did not have: television star and an anti-institutional role without the baggage that a political career entails (or being married to a former president). But there are a number of other reasons why Trump was successful despite being financially disadvantaged.

“Earned Media” or free press is one of them. Trump had a tremendous advantage in the daily news cycle thanks to his controversial remarks. A New York Times study found that Trump enjoyed nearly $ 2 billion worth of free media coverage during the election campaign.

Others argue that Trump’s campaign spending was more effective than Clinton’s. He invested heavily in social media, while Clinton relied on more traditional advertising such as expensive television advertising. A study by the Wesleyan Media Project also found that most of Trump’s TV commercials attacked Clinton’s politics, while most of Clinton’s were about his personality, which may have weakened their case for voters.

However, Libgober doubts that these factors would have had much of an impact. “I tend to view these claims with skepticism,” he said. “In a media environment that is already saturated with information and where party political loyalties are heavily activated, we shouldn’t expect campaign spending to make a big difference.”

Advertising is the cornerstone of any campaign and usually makes up the bulk of the budget. President Obama spent more than 70 percent of his campaign spending on advertising. But despite the enormous sums that are being spent on it, the effectiveness of political advertising is far from clear.

Stand out
The most obvious benefit of a media campaign is brand awareness. Unsurprisingly, many studies have found that people prefer candidates they know over those they are unfamiliar with. It goes without saying that an enormous presidential campaign leads to widespread recognition of the candidate.

This recognition is particularly important for newcomers. Unlike the incumbent, these challengers are not yet known names. It is therefore worth raising large funds to create a level playing field. In this scenario, money can have a significant impact on the race as it can determine which candidates fall at the first hurdle.

It has also been shown that spending money early in the race makes a difference. A 2016 study found that early spending had an impact on who would win the primaries, in part because it improved the profiles of lesser-known candidates.

Raising public awareness is one thing. Actually convincing people to vote for a candidate is another. Here the advertising effects are less clear.

Some experiments have shown that political advertising has a negligible impact. A large field experiment measured the impact of television commercials during Rick Perry’s 2006 campaign to be elected governor of Texas. The results were surprising. Although Perry had a 5 percent lead in the surveys of the markets where the ads were running, it only lasted a week.

This may be because many voters have already chosen Perry. Political partisanship in the United States has increased over the years. According to the Pew Research Center, the overall proportion of US citizens who consistently hold fast to their political views more than doubled between 1994 and 2014, from 10 to 21 percent. The proliferation of “ideological silos” makes it less likely that voters will change their minds as a result of an advertising campaign.

“It is more difficult to convince through advertising, especially if the customer has strong brand loyalty or is already familiar with the product. Similarly, campaign spending is least helpful in elections where there is already considerable media coverage and hardened public perception. Since the US presidential election is the most covered election, where party ties are strongest, we should assume that campaign spending is the least significant in this type of election, ”Libgober said.

When the persuasiveness of advertising is so tight, large chunks of campaign budgets can be wasted. Some even argue that elections are a case study of falling earnings. The closer the race gets, the more donors are willing to spend money and the less impact their money has.

Read the dollar signs
Money cannot dictate who wins the election. But it can tell us something about who is most likely to win.

Sometimes the number of donations indicates which candidate, according to the wider population, is the strongest. “In elections at all levels, strong candidates usually attract more money than weak candidates, so it is almost inevitable that there appears to be a relationship between campaign spending and profits,” Libgober said. “So maybe the candidate who spends the most does not win because he spends the most, but the candidate with the greatest electoral strength wins and spends the most.”

We can also get a feel for the likely winner by looking at how many small donors contributed to their campaign. Small donors are very likely to vote, so the number a campaign will attract is a useful measure of a candidate’s popularity with voters. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Trump raised nearly $ 100 million more than Biden from such voters.

So, tracking the money can give us an indication of which way voters are leaning. Libgober doubts whether the election campaign expenses actually influence the election result.

“Of course, with a wafer-thin choice like 2000 or 2016, even small differences can be decisive. At this point in time, the poll does not indicate a wafer-thin election result [for Trump versus Biden]although that could change. I suspect that developments in the economy and the stock market, the direction of the pandemic, and issues of access to the ballot papers are more likely to play a role than anything the campaigns themselves do, ”Libgober said.

All in all, campaign spending seems to be most effective when a candidate needs to raise awareness. After that, it becomes much more difficult to assess the impact of all that ad spend.

This raises questions that affect not only campaign officials but society in general. For example, if the impact of ad spend is limited to political outcomes, it could cast doubts about the influence of digital advertising giants like Facebook, which have been scrutinized so intensely because of their relatively unregulated approach to hosting political ads.

Even so, it cannot be denied that money can distort the political process. So it is important that the public knows where the campaign finances are coming from. Ever since Citizens United – a 2010 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that election campaigns could be received indefinitely by corporations and individuals – many have been concerned about the impact wealthy individuals and corporations can have on the outcome of the election. Worryingly, “dark money” – undisclosed donations – is on the rise. While the effectiveness of much campaign spending is unclear, more regulation and transparency about where these funds are coming from would certainly benefit the political process.

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