(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign announced that it raised $30 million in the first quarter of 2019. That’s a big number, far bigger than any that a Democratic contender has reported. In large part because he started early — Trump has been officially running for re-election during his entire term of office, while his predecessors usually pretended they weren’t running until sometime in their third year — he’s shattering all previous records.
I’ve seen several people who should know better indicate on Twitter that they’re impressed, so I guess it’s time for my quadrennial primer on money in presidential elections.
Don’t be fooled. Money is important in politics, but it’s least important in presidential general elections. In fact, it’s not very important at all.
Campaign spending mostly purchases name recognition, teaches voters a few positive things about a candidate and circulates a few negative things about opponents.
That’s valuable in elections where voters get most of their information from the campaigns themselves: Primary elections for state and local offices and nonpartisan races such as those for many local-government jobs and judicial seats. If there are four candidates on a ballot and you’ve heard of only one of them, and have nothing else to go by, there’s a fair chance you’ll vote for that one. It’s quite likely, in those low-level campaigns, that spending will be lopsided in favor of one candidate — typically the incumbent, if there is one.
The more that additional sources of information are available, however, the less spending will matter. That’s part of why there have been so many big-spending busts at the presidential nomination level, where heavy media coverage provides information that competes with what the candidates purchase in ads. Candidates such as John Connally in 1980, who secured one delegate to the Republican National Convention after spending some $11 million ($34 million in today’s dollars), have proved over and over again that money can’t buy the presidency or even get close to it. The latest case-study was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who spent $130 million to be an also-ran in 2016.
Still, while money doesn’t guarantee anything in presidential nomination politics, it can have impact. Indeed, Bush’s spending probably was quite successful at preventing Senator Marco Rubio of Florida from winning in Iowa and becoming the nominee; it just didn’t do much for Bush.
While news coverage can be important, perhaps the single most influential piece of information for voters is a simple one: party affiliation. Especially in the current era of intense partisanship, voters are capable of ignoring quite a bit of other information in order to support their party’s choice. So money in partisan general elections just isn’t as important as it is in primaries and nonpartisan contests.
But it can make a difference, especially when one candidate massively outspends the other. That’s part of why candidate recruitment is so important in elections for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Quality challengers are talented at raising money and are perceived as good investments, and so they wind up competitive in spending with the incumbents they take on. It’s also likely, with the demise of local newspapers and the absence of political information on local TV news, that there’s little information out there beyond whatever the campaigns are generating for many elections, even for statewide offices. So the campaigns are mainly competing against the pull of party.
That leaves presidential campaigns. They involve incredible amounts of cash. Hillary Clinton alone spent over $750 million in 2016, and that’s not counting party and outside groups that also raised and spent on her behalf. But they are also partisan contests, which means that most voters have their minds made up going in. Then there’s saturation coverage in the national media, which means that voters all know who the candidates are and a few positive and negative things about each of them without the campaigns needing to furnish that information. And while campaign spending isn’t necessarily equal between the candidates, there’s no such thing as an underfunded major-party presidential candidate.
In fact, it’s unlikely there will even be a temporary gap in spending. Some Republicans may believe, as one told NBC News, that the Democrats will be “bruised, battered and broke” after their nomination contest. That was possible in the era of public financing, when candidates had to wait until they were officially nominated to receive money for their general election campaigns, while incumbents could spend money from nomination fundraising they didn’t need in uncontested primaries. That gave President Bill Clinton in 1996 a perceived advantage over Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, with Clinton spending heavily in the spring and early summer while Dole had to wait for the Republican convention.
But those days are long gone. In an era when House candidates can raise millions from a slickly produced video that people retweet or post on Facebook, it’s certain that any candidate who wins a presidential nomination will be able to generate plenty of donations. And so even to the extent that spending matters, the large sums both sides raise will largely cancel each other out.
Indeed, when there’s an incumbent president on the ballot, elections tend to be reactions to that president’s popularity and the state of the economy, and sometimes feelings about an unpopular war. And even large expenditures aren’t really able to affect those things.
It’s possible that big enough differences in spending could make very small differences in the outcome of a presidential general election. The same is true for differences in debate performances or the quality of advertising campaigns. And if the election winds up close enough, as it did in 2000 and 2016, then those small differences could be part of what flips the margin.
And there’s basically no downside to raising and spending as much as possible. So from the point of view of the campaign, there’s no reason not to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. But the rest of us don’t have to be particularly focused on it.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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