Is Our Democracy for Sale? Maybe Not and Here's Some Proof

Most people would agree that far too much money is spent on political campaigns in this country. Since the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United in 2010, so much money has flooded into political campaigns it appears as though our democratic process is entirely for sale. And if rich people in the US are able to buy any political office they want, is there even a point in voting anymore?

Actually yes, there is a point in voting. True, politicians can be bought -- that's always been the case -- but elections are different. For all the money being poured into politics, there's ample evidence that elections in the US still can't really be bought.

Let's start with an example: In 2010 Meg Whitman spent about $178 million ($140 million of which was her own money) in an attempt to get elected governor of California. Jerry Brown, her opponent, only spent $37 million, and still beat her by 13 percent.

Is this because no Republican would have a chance in deep blue California? Not really. Since 1942 all but three California governors have been Republicans. Two of those three Democrats were named Brown, and the third one was recalled. Obviously Republicans can get elected governor of California, just not Meg Whitman, even with $178 million.

Rich people often try to self-fund (buy) their way into office, but how successful are they? The website lists every congressional campaign since 2002 in which a candidate paid for at least some of their campaign expenses with their own money. In 2012, for example, 48 congressional candidates used their own money to pay for at least part of their campaign; 36 of them lost.

That 25 percent success rate is bleak, but if we focus on the candidates who paid for the majority of their own campaigns, the numbers get even bleaker. There were 34 congressional candidates in 2012 who paid for at least 50 percent of their campaign expenses with their own money; 30 lost. In fact, since 2002 there have been 190 congressional candidates who have used their own money to pay for at least half of their own campaign and only 17 of them have won. That's fewer than 10% in more than a decade.

Clearly, it's not easy to buy yourself a seat in the US Congress. But what if you have rich friends help you? Can a group of rich people buy a political office for someone they want elected?

Apparently not -- at least according to a study done by the Sunlight foundation. They examined the effect of outside donations, including PAC and 501c3 donations, on 90 separate congressional races in 2012. In almost every case, they found virtually no effect at all. I know this sounds far-fetched, so instead let's examine the money spent by a few particular outside organizations to see what their money bought them.

Perhaps the biggest single organization to pump money into the 2012 election was American Crossroads. They spent nearly $105 million between individual House and Senate races and the Presidential race. What did they get? Not much. Of the $105 million they spent, just over $94 million was spent opposing candidates who eventually won and over $8 million was spent in support of candidates who lost their elections. That's about 3 percent success (at most).

Crossroads GPS fared a little better, but not much. They spent a total of about $70 million on the 2012 election. Over $53 million of that was to oppose candidates who won and just over $7 million was in support of candidates who lost. The US Chamber of Commerce, Freedomworks and the National Rifle Association together spent a combined $63.5 million in 2012; $40 million opposing candidates who won and about $13 million supporting candidates who lost.

Nearly $240 million was spent by these five organizations and just under 10 percent of it (about $23.5 million) was spent successfully. And that doesn't mean they managed to change those 10 percent -- those elections might have come out that way anyway -- only that they clearly failed in at least 90 percent.

To be fair, there were a few super PACs that seemed to spend their money more successfully, but the above examples clearly demonstrate that elections can't be swayed with money alone; even in gargantuan amounts.

So why do most politicians seem to be so obsessed with raising money? Probably because of the perception that the candidate with the most money wins. This seems to contradict everything else I've written but for this strange paradox: The candidate who raises more money usually wins even if they don't spend that money.

This observation came from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their book Freakonomics. They examined the money raised and spent in nearly 1,000 congressional campaigns since 1972 (page 10). They concluded that popular candidates are able to raise money because they're popular. Being popular is also how a candidate gets elected, so the amount of money a candidate raises is just a sign of their overall popularity, not the reason they get elected.

This helps explain why self-financed campaigns are usually a disaster. Being rich doesn't make you popular, so it won't get you elected. Being popular to a few very rich people who are willing to bankroll your campaign doesn't get you much further. This is why outside spending doesn't appear to help candidates much.

Now, I'm not arguing that money isn't bad for our political process. Quite the contrary: Politicians can still be bought even if elections can't. More money being pumped into any election means more temptation for a politician to sell out.

Still, the fact that elections can't be bought should be encouraging to anyone who's felt like giving up on our political process. It proves that, in the end, we voters still get to choose who gets elected in this Country. And that choice still isn't for sale.