by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
One of the most interesting and underreported storylines of the 2016 election was the failure of wealthy donors and corporate PACs to steer the democratic process.
Jeb Bush, the Republican establishment’s clear favorite and best fundraiser in the primary, spent $50 million each for his three pledged convention delegates. Rubio, the second biggest cash draw in the contest, sputtered to an unimpressive third place finish with 167 delegates—about one tenth of Trump’s final tally.
Meanwhile, Clinton struggled to put Bernie Sanders in the rearview despite raising 100 million more dollars. And in the general election, Clinton’s campaign outspent Trump’s nearly two to one, while Clinton-supporting outside spending groups outspent Trump-supporting groups by more than three to one, giving her a nearly $400 million advantage overall. Still, she lost nearly every battleground state.
Given the indecisive impact of big money in this election cycle, it is time to re-evaluate the popular claim that America has become, in the works of Paul Krugman, “a democracy in name only,” in which wealthy oligarchs use campaign contributions to elect simpatico politicians and control government.
Trump has shown that a candidate who connects with the public can overcome near unanimous opposition from the big corporations and wealthy mega-donors that progressives claim have hijacked the electoral process.
Since at least the 1960s, the correlation between campaign spending and margin of victory in the general election has been negligible. The graph below illustrates the relationship between a winning candidate’s cash advantage and margin of victory. If money influenced election outcomes to the degree progressives assert, presidential candidates who outspend their rivals by the most money should win election by the largest margins. Clearly, this is not the case.