All About Money

September 30, 2011

More money usually leads to an election win. In reviewing the November 2008 elections, the Center for Responsive Politics found that the candidate who spent the most money won in 93% of U.S. House and 94% of U.S. Senate races. These statistics very clearly underscore the impact of money in politics. Quite simply, the candidate with the most money is extremely likely to win.

This is very disturbing because it shows that elections are often for sale to the highest bidder.  More money is often all that is necessary to win, especially when low-information voters are a substantial portion of the electorate. More money means more signs, more mailers, more television ads and consequently more name and message recognition. But, of course, having the most money in your campaign treasury has no bearing on whether or not you are the best person to serve the voters.

Why Talking Points and Name Recognition Work

To find out why talking points and repetitive message/name exposure are effective we must examine the process of persuasion. Petty and Cacioppo developed the Elaboration Likelihood Model describing the process of persuasion.

We would like to think that most people use what they refer to as the central route to persuasion. This means that the individual cares about making a good decision, carefully studies and evaluates the available information, and makes a careful and judicious decision about the position or candidate they support.

However, the reason that name recognition and talking point repetition works is because so many low-information voters are susceptible to the peripheral route to persuasion. Peripheral persuasion occurs when individuals are less invested in the topic (e.g., those with some level of voter apathy) and they do not actively investigate and evaluate arguments. In these cases, individuals are influenced by peripheral variables such as attractiveness, likability, and message frequency.

The existence of peripheral persuasion is why candidates with the financial resources flood the airwaves with television commercials during the final days leading up to an election. They are hoping that low-information voters will simply remember their name or message from the ads and cast their ballots on that basis. Unfortunately, many individuals are persuaded through this peripheral mechanism which may provide at least a partial explanation for the 93-94% success rate of candidates with the most money.

Getting the Most Money

There are several types of candidates who tend to have the biggest campaign treasuries:

1. Wealthy candidates who can self-finance – These individuals have ample money to spend on a campaign and do not need to solicit donations. However, this guarantees us absolutely nothing about their suitability to serve in public office. Some of these wealthy individuals are simply seeking power or notoriety but have absolutely no interest in dedicating themselves to public service and working on behalf of the best interests of the people.

2. Those who work on behalf of the wealthy and corporations – These individuals are essentially sell outs who build their campaign treasury by promising support for what their donors want. This clearly is at odds with having elected leaders who work on behalf of all citizens.

3. People who are skilled at fundraising and sales – Some people are just excellent fundraisers and can talk people into donating to their campaign. However, this does not necessarily mean that they also have the analysis, debate, communication, and community relations skills to be an effective elected leader.

Obviously, neither having a lot of money nor being able to raise a lot of money has any relationship to whether or not a candidate is the best choice to work on behalf of the people.

Corporate Influence

Not only can wealthy executives and CEO’s make personal contributions to candidates, but now corporations can spend unlimited funds to purchase and run advertising for the candidate of their choice or against the candidate they wish to defeat.

In the Citizens United Supreme Court decision made by a narrow 5 to 4 vote, the Court decided that money is speech and, therefore, corporate spending on campaign advertising cannot be limited.

However, we need to understand the full meaning and impact of this decision. This implies that those with more money are entitled to more speech. Everyday Americans are not in a position to flood the airwaves with ads supporting their preferred candidate. So this type of interpretation of free speech rights gives the most to those with more money. I think the founders of our nation would be outraged by the concept of allocating free speech rights or opportunity based on money. This drastically undermines the founding principles of our nation.

Taking Money Out of the Equation

Kudos to The Dylan Ratigan Show for discussing the negative impact of money in politics and calling for a constitutional amendment banning personal and corporate donations to Federal campaigns or spending on advertising for or against any campaign. If you would like to read the proposed amendment and consider signing the petition supporting the amendment go to the Get Money Out website.

You might wonder how candidates would operate their campaigns without these donations as we certainly do not want to limit our pool of potential public servants to only wealthy individuals who can self-finance their campaigns. The answer is public financing. Arianna Huffington, Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post, among others has argued for public financing of Federal elections because many politicians abandon what is good for middle-class Americans in order to work on behalf of the donor class (wealthy individuals and corporations) and lobbyists. Public financing would ensure that candidates have an equal and limited amount of resources with which to spread their message and would remove the motivation to cast Congressional votes based on the campaign revenue stream.

Most Americans are enraged about the amount of corruption and gridlock in Washington D.C. If we truly want these things to change, we absolutely must get money out of politics and make our elected leaders accountable to all their citizen constituents and not just those who give them money. We need to draw a line in the sand and state clearly that our representation and our government is no longer for sale.