Does Money Buy Elections?
Download this report as a PDF
Download the 2008 Senate Addendum to this report
The Americans for Campaign Reform report, “Does Money Buy Elections?” (January 2008), analyzes the relationship between campaign spending and election outcomes for incumbent, challenger, and open seat candidates for U.S. House from 1992-2006. It finds a competitive spending threshold below which previously unknown candidates are unable to effectively compete and beyond which additional spending produces diminishing marginal returns. The report’s key findings are summarized below;
- Threshold Effects of Campaign Spending
Non-incumbent candidates require a spending threshold of between $0.7-$1 million in order to credibly compete. Incumbents enjoy an inherently competitive position and choose a similar minimum spending level when faced with a serious challenger.
- Less than 1% of challengers and 5% of open seat candidates spending $700,000 or less won election.
- More than 45% of non-incumbents with spending of $700,000 or more won election.
- 75% of non-incumbents spent $700,000 or less.
- Diminishing Marginal Returns
Once candidates exceed the competitive spending threshold and voters learn who they are, more spending does not measurably increase the share of votes.
- 47% of challengers spending $700,000 or more won office. The rate did not measurably improve as spending rose to $1.5 million, and just 31% of topspending challengers over $1.5m won office.
- 60% of open seat-candidates spending $700,000 or more won office. As with challengers, the rate did not improve as spending rose to $1.5 million and it remained constant at 61% thereafter.
- The average House incumbent facing an adequately financed challenger received 55% of the vote, regardless of the level of incumbent or challenger spending.
- Policy Implications
The report concludes that robust electoral competition is achieved when qualified candidates have access to sufficient spending to become known to the voters. It recommends that sufficiency, rather than parity, of spending by highly qualified candidates be the primary objective of campaign finance reforms aimed at boosting competition and accountability.