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« Gas glut | Main | QC overturns 4th Amendment »

Jan 24, 2012


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David Wharton

Romney's super PAC far outspent Gingrich's -- $2.4 million to $1.6 million -- in South Carolina, and, um, yeah. Steven Levitt also has some interesting things to say about money in politics:

When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose one percent of the popular vote. So we’re talking about really, really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote.
Which isn't to say that money doesn't matter in politics, but super PAC money seems to be among the less corrupting varieties.


Not really on-topic, but a great song nonetheless.

Doug H

"...but super PAC money seems to be among the less corrupting varieties."

Less corrupting to the voters, maybe, but what about to the candidates?

  Bill Yaner

I'm not sure how you could get to your numbers on that issue, David. How many of us could or would say when asked that a certain political ad caused you to vote for the person you did? Or that we drink Bud because of a particular Superbowl ad?

"Scientific" surveys aside, Annheuser Busch would not be throwing that big money on those ads unless they knew damn well they were influencing viewers, and neither would the Koch brothers.

David Wharton

Bill, they're not my numbers; ask the Freakonomics guys how they got them.

Not that I think economics is particularly scientific, but Levitt is a respected economist and his conclusions are based on empirical observations; you're not going to refute them by throwing scare quotes at them, or by introducing a false analogy to beer sales, or by ritually repeating the name of the left's current monster in the closet.

In fact, come to think of it, a one-percent uptick in sales is probably worth at least a $10 mil investment by InBev. So maybe your analogy actually supports Levitt's point.

Finally -- George Soros! George Soros! Boo!

Ed Cone

One SuperPac spending more than another in SC doesn't change the dynamic of a single family being able to give unlimited amounts and altering a race overnight, which is exactly what seems to have happened.

Newt suddenly had the funds to attack Mitt, and also the knowledge that he could afford to keep on fighting after SC...and, hey, same family just ponied up another $5 million.

David Wharton
...to give unlimited amounts and altering a race overnight, which is exactly what seems to have happened.
That seems to have happened only if you assume that big spending sways a lot of votes, but that is precisely the assumption being questioned here. You can't prove your assumption simply by restating it.

Santorum won in Iowa spending $30,000; Rick Perry spent $4.3 mil and got 10% of the vote.

Gingrich is not doing well in the polls because he's getting a buttload of cash; he's getting a buttload of cash because he's doing well. Stephen Dubner:

Here’s the thing: Winning an election and raising money do go together, but it doesn’t seem as though money actually causes the winning either. It’s just that the kind of candidate who’s attractive to voters also ends up, along the way, attracting a lot of money and the losing candidate, nobody wants to give money to that guy.
You think if the Adelsons had given $5 mil to Rick Perry he could have won South Carolina? Nah.


Newt is winning because he's blowing that dog whistle as hard as he can.

Ed Cone

Pop economics and glib contrarianism aside, Iowa is a special case. Also, Dubner is not describing the world where a single family can fund a whole campaign, which is the topic here.


Sorry, Ed. You're right. It's all about the money. Sad, isn't it?

David Wharton

Ed, you're killing me. "Pop economics"? "Glib contrarianism"? Steven Levitt is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. You've switched from the petitio principii to the ad hominem. We won't put Levitt's work aside just because you wish to do so by mischaracterizing it.

I'm from Iowa, and it isn't that special; Iowans watch TV and read direct mail, too. But even if it were a special case, you simply have no grounds to distinguish "a world where a single family can fund a whole campaign" from one where a whole bunch of little donors can fund a whole campaign as respects $$ and electoral outcomes. Levitt's work showed that spending has very little effect on outcomes "regardless of who does the spending."


"...you simply have no grounds to distinguish "a world where a single family can fund a whole campaign" from one where a whole bunch of little donors can fund a whole campaign as respects $$ and electoral outcomes."

Have the lack of grounds ever been an impediment to further enshrine "progressive" urban legend/agenda talking points?

Experience says grounds are NEVER required for that sort of thing.

  Bill Yaner

My "false" analogy to beer sales, David, was in recognition of the plain fact that NO ONE can put their finger on the exact impact of advertising - be it commercial or political. My background is marketing, and I spent much effort in my career trying to bring empirical evidence to an engineering oriented management team that did not trust gut feel.

I read your 25 pages from Mr. Levitt and see this same core problem of trying to isolate causality in a world of incredibly robust variables that has always and will always separate the social from the physical sciences.

You want there to be proof that money does not impact elections, and that makes you very accepting of the Levitt study. That doesn't make you a bad guy, though.

Ed Cone

Identifying Freakonomics and its spin-offs as pop culture seems pretty accurate to me. Certainly the contrarianism on money's importance to American politics will need a bit more fleshing out before campaigns stop with the fund-raising.

Iowa's caucuses do set it apart from other states -- it's not something in the water or the corn, just the structure of Iowa's political system.

And, yes, there is a difference between a nation of small donors and a nation where the mega-rich can tilt the scales as we just witnessed. That difference is the actual point under discussion here.

Steve Harrison

Professor, Levitt mischaracterized his own study by injecting his findings into that particular conversation.

The study in question dealt specifically with Congressional candidates who had already ran against each other in previous races. Meaning, voters had already made their choice between the two (at least) once before.

I'm surprised they swung even 1%. Think about it. While you might not vote for the same person twice, the odds of you voting for someone you had previously voted against are pretty slim.

The results of the study might not be flawed, but the original scope was. The psychological factors make the resulting data virtually useless, unless you're contemplating throwing money into a rematch. Which apparently you shouldn't do.


It doesn't seem especially important if advertising money does or does not actually influence election outcomes. The rich certainly believe it does. Why else would they spend such large amounts of money unless they want to sway the vote and secure an ability to influence the winner? That's an obvious distortion of the democratic process. Any concentration of wealth and power in a tiny minority is always a threat to the democratic process.




Is an economy of words your thing, Kim?





David Wharton

Yes, Ed, Levitt is a pop economist -- in just the same way that Paul Krugman is. The fact that they both write for popular audiences doesn't mean their views may be dismissed without discussion, as you wished to do with Levitt's (and thank you Steve H and Bill Y for actually addressing an argument!).

As I said, I'm quite familiar with Iowa; I grew up there and I actually helped cover the 1980 caucuses as a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Its caucus system, demographics, low population density, and long lead time do make it somewhat different than other states. But as others have observed, the candidates and donors sure think that spending matters there, and the fact that Perry outspent Santorum by a factor of eighteen thousand and got nowhere is really quite amazing, and also a powerful indication that money in campaigns matters much less than candidates and donors think, even taking Iowa's uniqueness into consideration.

I agree it's likely that Levitt's conclusions are not completely transferable to all situations, and that the causal link between spending and voting is not fully knowable (see David Hume), yet one would expect that empirical evidence from an MIT economist published in a peer-reviewed journal, suggesting that money in elections matters far less than most people think, would be welcome news to those most concerned about the undue influence of the rich.

Yet somehow it isn't.

Ed Cone

DW, let's not get lost in the weeds here.

I don't think the information from the Freakonomics guys, interesting as it is, undoes the proposition that money can make a big difference in politics.

And I think there's a big difference betweenn a system where an individual can tilt a state-wide race by writing a check, and a system where that doesn't happen.

If you disagree with either or both of those points, then, well, we disagree about either or both of those points.


"....undoes the proposition that money can make a big difference in politics."

Where is the empirical evidence that establishes such a "proposition"?

Let me help you out. The answer is "Nowhere">

David Wharton

Eppur si muove.


His horse is purple?

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