More Money, More Votes? : Planet Money The 2020 election cycle is almost in full swing. People can barely go a day without seeing an ad from candidates asking for money. But does more money really mean more votes?
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More Money, More Votes?

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More Money, More Votes?

More Money, More Votes?

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DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Have you been on Facebook lately, or YouTube? Or have you watched TV? If you have done any of those things, there is a good chance that someone running for president has asked you for money.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Looking at these frantic appeals for money, there's an easy assumption to make that a larger pile of money equals a larger chance of winning.

KURTZLEBEN: But I got to say, I've been covering politics for years now, and I always wonder how true is that? How tight is that relationship? So I talked to a guy named Charlie Spies. Charlie is a big deal in Republican fundraising.

CHARLIE SPIES: I've been involved in - I don't want to take credit for it, necessarily...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Yeah, yeah.

SPIES: ...But involved in organizations I'm confident that have raised over a billion dollars.

GARCIA: Charlie was the treasurer of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's - Jeb Bush's superPAC Right to Rise in the 2016 race. SuperPACs, by the way, are groups that might support a candidate but cannot work directly with that candidate.

KURTZLEBEN: And Right to Rise raised gargantuan amounts of money, unprecedented at the time. But then Bush lost, and pretty soundly. So Spies might reasonably have a unique perspective on how much money matters. So I asked him, what's the baseline amount of money needed to run for president?

SPIES: My initial answer would be who the hell knows? I would have said, I think, four years ago, that you'd want to have 200-plus million to get through the primary on both the candidate and superPAC side together.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, we are going to take a stab at answering one of the toughest questions in politics. Do more dollars equal more votes?

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY MARRS, MIKE RADOVSKY AND STEPHEN CIRKVENCIC'S "HAIL TO THE CHIEF")

KURTZLEBEN: Let's start with the unsatisfying answer to that question of whether more dollars equal more votes. Studies of past elections have found that there is no hard-and-fast direct link between money and getting votes.

GARCIA: And in this episode, we are just going to look at presidential campaigns. So have a look at Hillary Clinton, for example. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the groups that supported her outraised Donald Trump and his groups by more than $300 million in the 2016 election. And, still, he won.

But one big, important thing we can say - you do need a certain minimum amount of money to run seriously for president. That's according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. Here's what Sheila said about raising money.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It's essential but it's not sufficient on its own. Candidates need to have enough money to get their message out, to pay the staff that will run their campaign, their field offices, and money to pay their fundraising operation, consultants, et cetera.

GARCIA: And there's also other basic stuff you need to be a competitive candidate, like name recognition. Put ads out there, do a lot of events, and you can get more people to know who you are. And so it's not necessarily easy, but money can at least help with that.

KURTZLEBEN: Long story short, according to Sheila, money doesn't buy the message, but it can be a heck of a bullhorn.

KRUMHOLZ: Even if they have good ideas and good charisma, they also need to have that money to be able to get that message out. You need a certain amount to be considered a financially viable candidate, but that threshold varies widely.

GARCIA: But beyond that threshold, money's effect becomes less clear.

KURTZLEBEN: Which makes a logical sense when you think about how voting decisions happen. I mean, a lot of Americans already have their minds made up who they're going to vote for. So as a candidate, you're targeting a very specific subset of voters, for example, people in swing states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, and then voters who are undecided or who are on the fence about whether they'll even turn out. And even then, it's not clear that an ad or a door knocker or an email or whatever is going to be the thing that convinces someone to vote and to vote for you.

GARCIA: Yeah. But wait; because we're focusing a lot on what money buys, but that's a really limited way to look at all this, which brings us to important point No. 2 about campaign fundraising. Money isn't just about buying stuff.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Campaign money has a big signaling effect. When a candidate gets a lot of money, it, first of all, will get some media coverage. Think about the millions of dollars early on in this campaign that Bernie Sanders and Beto O'Rourke raised in just their first days alone. That got lots of attention.

GARCIA: But beyond that, there's another important effect. Money begets more money. It signals to other donors that, yes, I can do this. Yes, I am a safe investment. If you give me a thousand dollars or if you give my superPAC $100,000, I'm not going to drop out tomorrow because I have the money I already need to sustain myself for at least a while longer.

KURTZLEBEN: Which means there's also a timing aspect to your political donations. Sheila told me this, and she referenced a popular Democratic fundraising group.

KRUMHOLZ: This is the basis for bundling operations like EMILY's List, which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. That early money helps you raise the dough. It helps you raise and inspire funding from lots of other potential donors.

KURTZLEBEN: Whether it's done early or late in the cycle, there's one more point here. Fundraising just costs money - often, a lot of money. And that might sound counterintuitive because if I'm Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren or whoever, I could just send out an email and let the money roll in because sending an email is free.

GARCIA: Well, that turns out not to be true, though. First of all, you have to buy lists of email addresses, and those can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that process of seeking out those donations is also often a lot of work for very little reward. As Charlie put it, if 15% of the people you send an email to end up giving your campaign money, that is, according to his words, phenomenal.

KURTZLEBEN: And in this election, we have a heightened version of that whole phenomenal phenomenon...

GARCIA: Hey, nice.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Yeah - on the Democratic side because in order to even get onto the stage for those televised debates you may have seen, candidates have to hit a certain polling threshold and get a certain number of donors. So a lot of candidates are reaching out online to their lists, saying, listen; just give me $1.

GARCIA: It's this weird situation where a $1 donation is much more valuable than a dollar. One staggering statistic here, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, some Democratic campaigns are spending $35 or more to get just $1 through a Facebook ad. Let's just say that one more time. They're spending $35 to get $1 back from a donor through Facebook ads.

KURTZLEBEN: Like, that's...

GARCIA: Awesome.

KURTZLEBEN: It sounds crazy, but I just want to add here that that might not be as inefficient as that sounds because the campaigns are making the calculation that being on that stage, being on national television taking a jab at an opponent that could be played on morning cable news the next day is worth it because if a candidate gets on that debate stage and has an amazing night, it could be worth it.

GARCIA: I'll tell you what. I'm going to give you a dollar, Danielle. You give me back 35 bucks. You can host the rest of the show. It's over. It's over.

KURTZLEBEN: Are you going to make me the leader of the free world after that?

GARCIA: Absolutely.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, cool.

GARCIA: We could scale it up, too. I can give you five bucks, and you can give me 34 times $5 - whatever, yeah. Exactly.

Even leaving all that aside, though, the fact remains money definitely can be spent really ineffectively, as Charlie pointed out, based on having observed the way money was spent trying to get Jeb Bush elected.

SPIES: Most money was spent positioning Jeb against Rubio, and that meant that Trump was left alone because the assumption was if you could clear the lane and run against him, you were going to be fine.

KURTZLEBEN: That assumption, as it turns out, was wrong. Just like money can't buy charisma or a good debate performance, it also doesn't mean you have the right strategy.

GARCIA: Speaking of stuff that money can't buy, there's one more thing we haven't touched on, a huge boost that Donald Trump got in 2016.

KURTZLEBEN: Let's go back to something Charlie said at the beginning of this episode, where he said that $200 million seemed like a good amount to win a primary back in 2016 but now that his equation is essentially broken. Here's why.

SPIES: If you're running against a reality television star with almost 100% name ID that CNN and all the stations will cover their rallies live, then money doesn't matter.

GARCIA: By one estimate, between July 2015 and October 2016, Trump got nearly $6 billion worth of that free coverage. That's more than double what Clinton got. Media earned equals money saved.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, any presidential candidate wants that type of coverage, but doing it on Donald Trump's scale is a tough strategy to try to put into practice. It worked for a reality TV star who said really inflammatory things, but if everyone could figure out a way to get constant media coverage, you can bet everyone would.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY MARRS, MIKE RADOVSKY AND STEPHEN CIRKVENCIC'S "HAIL TO THE CHIEF")

GARCIA: This podcast was produced by Darius Rafieyan, edited by Paddy Hirsch and fact-checked by Emily Lang. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY MARRS, MIKE RADOVSKY AND STEPHEN CIRKVENCIC'S "HAIL TO THE CHIEF")

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