Not nearly as much as you think. In fact, according to Freakonomics writers Levitt and Dubner, money is a negligible factor in influencing elections. Here’s a long essay that includes this finding.
And here’s a clip from that essay:
Of all the truisms about politics, one is held to be truer than the rest: money buys elections. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, Jon Corzine — these are but a few recent, dramatic examples of the truism at work. (Disregard for a moment the contrary examples of Howard Dean, Steve Forbes, Michael Huffington, and especially Thomas Golisano, who over the course of three gubernatorial elections in New York spent $93 million of his own money and won 4 percent, 8 percent, and 14 percent, respectively, of the vote.) Most people would agree that money has an undue influence on elections and that far too much money is spent on political campaigns.
Indeed, election data show it is true that the candidate who spends more money in a campaign usually wins. But is money the cause of the victory?
It might seem logical to think so, much as it might have seemed logical that a booming economy in the 1990s helped reduce crime. But just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. A correlation simply means that a relationship exists between two factors — let’s call them X and Y — but it tells you nothing about the direction of that relationship. It’s possible that X causes Y; it’s also possible that Y causes X and it may be that X and Y are both being caused by some other factor, Z.
Here’s the surprise: the amount of money spent by the candidates hardly matters at all. A winning candidate can cut his spending in half and lose only 1 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a losing candidate who doubles his spending can expect to shift the vote in his favor by only that same 1 percent. What really matters for a political candidate is not how much you spend; what matters is who you are. (The same could be said and will be said, in chapter 5 about parents.) Some politicians are inherently attractive to voters and others simply aren’t, and no amount of money can do much about it. (Messrs. Dean, Forbes, Huffington, and Golisano already know this, of course.)
I happen to believe that they are right, and I also happen to believe that the extraordinary rise of Mike Huckabee might be termed “Exhibit A”. Flip Flopney has spent about 10 times more money in Iowa than has our boy Huck, but despite this fact, Huck is about to open up a big, big can on Flip in several weeks, in a massive come-from-behind win. Huck’s done it without raising a lot of money, though his money-raising has prospered significantly in recent weeks, but true to Dubner and Levitt’s hypothesis, the money is following the success of Huck, not causing it.
Raising, and then spending, a huge chunk of money isn’t going to “buy an election” if people don’t like you or what you have to say. Ron Paul boasts the impressive fact that he recently set a one-day money-raising record. That’s great for Ron, who’s a good guy. But if he’d raised ten times that much, it still wouldn’t give him a ghost of a chance to win the nomination. Now, I agree with a lot of Ron’s stances, particularly his libertarian impulses, but he’s not winning many votes among Republicans because of his libertarianism, but because he’s the one Republican anti-Iraq candidate, and he’s racking up points with that vocal, but small, minority. No amount of money will win him the nomination, much less the election, because he’s not where the vast majority of Republicans are, even if he’s where most of them should be on a lot of points. Flip Flopney is spending money like a drunken sailor, but he’s losing support, largely because Republican voters don’t believe there’s much “there” there.
Conversely, Mike Huckabee is soaring because he connects with voters, because he exudes principle above politics, because he’s got a sense of humor, is quick on his feet, and people instinctively like him. You can’t buy that for any amount of money. If I see Flip Flopney’s face on a commercial once, or if I see it a thousand times, he’s still Flip Flopney, and I’m still not going to vote for him. In a real, real tight election, money might make a difference, but for the idea that it sways a lot of voters, well, that’s just being exposed to be an urban legend, just like the Freakonomics boys said…