Money Doesn’t Buy Elections

It’s fairly obvious that the candidate with the most money usually wins the election, but it turns out that the money is not responsible for the win. In other words, this is a “correlation does not imply causation” scenario: while there really is a correlation between the size of the war chest and winning the election, the war chest does not cause the victory. In general, there are three ways to explain the correlation:

  • Maybe the large war chest causes the victory
  • Maybe the victory causes the large war chest
  • Maybe both the victory and large war chests are caused by a third factor

The second one can be thrown out, since the victory happens after the war chest has been amassed, so the option is impossible. Most people, however, forget about the third option and hence the logic goes “if victory can’t cause the war chest, then the war chest must cause victory.” In this case though, the answer actually is the third option: candidates that are likable get more donations and win elections. That third factor causes both outcomes.

As much as he tried, Steve Forbes couldn't buy an election


We know this, because a story on Marketplace points to a study in which the researchers looked at Congressional elections and tried to isolate the effect money had on the outcome of the election. The result: doubling their spending got candidates a mere 1% more of the popular vote. They also point to would-be politicians who spent a lot of money but never got anywhere, like Steve Forbes and Meg Whitman.

So the thinking that money buys elections is a fallacy of our brain wiring: the size of campaign donations are just a predictor of how the candidate will do in the general election, because donors are just a sample of the general population.

From Marketplace


  1. Ron Paul Raised More Money Than Anyone But Romney | Apt46 - pingback on May 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: