Either money isn’t as important as we thought in politics or Democrats are really bad at spending it
Votes are still being counted but even if the 2020 election isn’t quite over yet, the campaigns themselves are over. Yes, in many places lawyers are sharpening their teeth to contest results and election officials are preparing for recounts, but there are no voters to court, no mailers to design, no signs to wave. The algorithms in charge of our TV commercials and online-ads are already fazing out insane politics for inane products. It’s over.
Those algorithms were kept busy in 2020, as fundraising and spending records of all kinds were broken as candidates, campaigns, and advocacy groups vied for our votes. Joe Biden is the first candidate to raise over $1 billion and North Carolina’s US Senate race is the most expensive congressional contest in history. “The total cost of the 2020 election will nearly reach an unprecedented $14 billion, making it the most expensive election in history and twice as expensive as the previous presidential election cycle.” said OpenSecrets.org in a pre-election day analysis last week.
Democrats had a commanding lead in fundraising and campaign spending at all levels this year, nearly doubling Republicans. Democratic candidates are finishing their campaigns having spent a collective $6.9 billion while their GOP counterparts parted with a mere $3.8 billion. Donald Trump raised just a bit over half as much as the $1 billion Michael Bloomberg spent on his own failed candidacy let alone the $1 billion Biden did on his possibly successful one. This makes the effort to reclaim the presidency from Donald Trump the most expensive political campaign of all time.
More money has been spent to unseat Donald Trump than any political candidate in history. And it may still fail.
From small time state house races to the US Senate to the presidency, Democrats have been very successful. In fundraising that is. When it comes to winning, yesterday wasn’t that kind. Or at least, to put it another way: given what they had to work with, outspending their opponents 2-to-1, how the hell did Democrats not do better?
Democrats not only didn’t take the Senate as they were hoping, they actually lost seats in the House — how many we don’t completely know yet. Joe Biden ran against the most unpopular presidential winner in history and is just barely squeaking by and may still ultimately lose. In North Carolina’s record-breaking Senate race, the Democrat spent far over twice as much as the Republican and, as of now, is still losing. In a small Alaska house race, the Democrat raised over three times as much as the Republican, and appears to have lost badly.
Democrats raised more in small donations. They had more Super Pac money. They spent more. Their allies spent more. Why didn’t they do better?
Maybe Democrats just really suck at this. Hillary also spent twice as much as Trump only to lose. Bloomberg lost. Delaney lost. There is a long list of Democrats who lost to less-funded opponents.
But maybe money is less influential in elections that you think.
This is not to discount the importance of money in a campaign. A campaign without money is just a person talking to their friends. And campaigns can be very, very expensive. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, the average cost of a U.S. House race in 2016 was over $1.5 million. Money really isn’t everything but it is essential.
Being a viable candidate for office you really only need one thing: for your message to reach the voters. And that means money. Money for lawn signs, online ads, commercials, radio spots, print ads, mailers, stamps, and a host of other logistical necessities. Most campaign staff are eager to get paid. Your volunteers will need gas money or at least pizza and soda during a stamp-licking party. Money is important.
However, as even NPR makes clear, money does not decide elections. Funding decides who remains in a campaign till election day — those yard signs and bumper stickers and polls need to be paid for, after all — but money does not determine the outcome of an election.
It didn’t for Ross Perot, it didn’t for Bloomberg, it didn’t for a great many people yesterday. Democrats had an impressive year for fundraising but their IPO kind of fizzled. They had every advantage but were unable to parlay their massive war chests into clear success. It seems likely Biden will be president and that he will face a Republican Senate with a weak Democratic House.
If Biden wants to get anything done in his first term, the Democrats need to figure out how to better peddle their message because clearly they failed to do a good job of it and they had every means to do so.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance writer. He writes at The Swamp, is features writer at Grunge, and has also been featured in Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, Times of Israel, Alaska Native News, among others. Argue with him on Twitter.