Super PACs are terrible—but ineffective

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It’s now beginning to look like an ongoing series: “Reasons to be optimistic about our democracy.”

Super PACs, in case you didn’t know, are a bizarre form of legal entity, established after the ludicrous Citizens United ruling (“Corporations are people” and “money is speech” are literally Orwellian), which allows corporations to donate essentially unlimited funds to political campaigns with minimal disclosure and zero accountability. This creates an arms race where even otherwise-honest candidates feel pressured to take more secret money just to keep up.

At the time, a lot of policy wonks said “Don’t worry, they already give tons of money anyway, what’s the big deal?”

Well, those wonks were wrong—it was a big deal. Corporate donations to political campaigns exploded in the era of Super PACs. The Citizens United ruling was made in 2010, and take a look at this graph of total “independent” (i.e., not tied to candidate or party) campaign spending (using data from OpenSecrets):

SuperPAC_spending

It’s a small sample size, to be sure, and campaign spending was already rising. But 2010 and 2014 were very high by the usual standards of midterm elections, and 2012 was absolutely unprecedented—over $1 billion spent on campaigns. Moreover, the only reason 2016 looks lower than 2012 is that we’re not done with 2016 yet; I’m sure it will rise a lot higher than it is now, and very likely overtake 2012. (And if it doesn’t it’ll be because Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump made very little use Super-PACs, for quite different reasons.) It was projected to exceed $4 billion, though I doubt it will actually make it quite that high.

Worst of all, this money is all coming from a handful of billionaires. 41% of Super-PAC funds comes from the same 50 households. That’s fifty. Even including everyone living in the household, this group of people could easily fit inside an average lecture hall—and they account for two-fifths of independent campaign spending in the US.

Weirdest of all, there are still people who seem to think that the problem with American democracy is it’s too hard for rich people to give huge amounts of money to political campaigns in secret, and they are trying to weaken our campaign spending regulations even more.

So that’s the bad news—but here’s the good news.

Super-PACs are ludicrously ineffective.

Hillary Clinton is winning, and will probably win the election; and she does have the most Super-PAC money among candidates still in the race (at $76 million, about what the Clintons themselves make in 3 years). Ted Cruz also has $63 million in Super-PAC money. But Bernie Sanders only has $600,000 in Super-PAC money (actually also about 3 times his household income, coincidentally), and Donald Trump only has $2.7 million. Both of these are less than John Kasich’s $13 million in Super-PAC spending, and yet Kasich and Cruz are now dropped out and only Trump remains.

But more importantly, the largest amount of Super-PAC money went to none other than Jeb Bush—a whopping $121 million—and it did basically nothing for him. Marco Rubio had $62 million in Super-PAC money, and he dropped out too. Martin O’Malley had more Super-PAC money than Bernie Sanders, and where is he now? In fact, literally every Republican candidate had more Super-PAC money than Bernie Sanders, and every Republican but Rick Santorum, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki (you’re probably thinking: “Who?” Exactly.) had more Super-PAC money than Donald Trump.

Indeed, political spending in general is not very effective. Additional spending on political campaigns has minimal effects on election outcomes.

You wouldn’t immediately see that from our current Presidential race; while Rubio raised $117 million and Jeb! raised $155 million and both of them lost, the winners also raised a great deal. Hillary Clinton raised $256 million, Bernie Sanders raised $180 million, Ted Cruz raised $142 million, and Donald Trump raised $48 million. Even that last figure is mainly so low because Donald Trump is a master at getting free publicity; the media effectively gave Trump an astonishing $1.89 billion in free publicity. To be fair, a lot of that was bad publicity—but it still got his name and his ideas out there and didn’t cost him a dime.

So, just from the overall spending figures, it looks like maybe total campaign spending is important, even if Super-PACs in particular are useless.

But empirical research has shown that political spending has minimal effects on actual election outcomes. So ineffective, in fact, that a lot of economists are puzzled that there’s so much spending anyway. Here’s a paper arguing that once you include differences in advertising prices, political spending does matter. Here are two papers proposing different explanations for why incumbent spending appears to be less effective than challenger spending:This one says that it’s a question of accounting for how spending is caused by voter participation (rather than the reverse), while this one argues that the abuse of incumbent privileges like franking gives incumbents more real “spending” power. It’s easy to miss that both of them are trying to explain a basic empirical fact that candidates that spend a lot more still often lose.

Political advertising can be effective at changing minds, but only to a point.

The candidate who spends the most usually does win—but that’s because the candidate who spends the most usually raises the most, and the candidate who raises the most usually has the most support.

The model that makes the most sense to me is that political spending is basically a threshold; you need to spend enough that people know you exist, but beyond that additional spending won’t make much difference. In 1996 that threshold was estimated to be about $400,000 for a House election; that’s still only about $600,000 in today’s money.

Campaign spending is more effective when there are caps on individual contributions; a lot of people find this counter-intuitive, but it makes perfect sense on a threshold model, because spending caps could hold candidates below the threshold. Limits on campaign spending have a large effect on spending, but a small effect on outcomes.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to limit campaign spending? I don’t think so. It can still be corrupt and undesirable even if isn’t all that effective.

But it is good news: You can’t actually just buy elections—not in America, not yet.

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