Yes, money still buys elections

(Cross-posted over at http://change-congress.org/blog/2008/11/13/money-still-wins-elections).

Amidst all of the energy and fervor around the 2008 elections, one thing remained the same: money wins elections. Once again, the candidates with the most money were able to take home victory in not just the Presidential race (Obama outspent McCain two-to-one) but in Senate and Congressional races around the country. The Center for Responsible Politics released numbers last week demonstrating that no matter how much enthusiasm a candidate might have, it all comes down to money in the end.

As CRP’s Executive Director Sheila Krumholz revealed, in 9 out of 10 contests the best-funded candidates won their races. This matches a trend that is familiar to those tracking the connection between money and politics:

Continuing a trend seen election cycle after election cycle, the biggest spender was victorious in 397 of 426 decided House races and 30 of 32 settled Senate races. On Election Day 2006, top spenders won 94 percent of House races and 73 percent of Senate races. In 2004, 98 percent of House seats went to the biggest spender, as did 88 percent of Senate seats.

Despite Congressional approval ratings dangling in the single digits, 95% of House incumbents won re-election and 93% of Senate incumbents were welcomed back by voters. How did they do it? Money.

These financial shackles that require massive amounts of money just to mount a viable candidacy for the House or Senate are dangerous in two ways:

(1) it keeps out regular Americans from ever being able to run for office because they can’t raise enough money to stay competitive.

(2) it in debts winning candidates to their benefactors. As Krumholz says, “The politicians who were just elected potentially owe their campaign contributors billions of dollars for helping them win.” How they repay them is part of the problem.

Here are some figures to chew on:

– average cost of winning a House seat in 2008: $1.1 million

– average cost of winning a Senate seat in 2008: $6.5 million.

– 1 in 4: number of House seats where incumbent faced no financial opposition.

– CRP’s estimated total cost of U.S. elections this year: $5.3 billion making it the most expensive election in American history.

– 93%: House races where top-spender won.

– 94%: Senate races where top-spender won.

My first reaction to this was, “What could we fund with $5.3 billion?” Healthcare? A more efficient and stringent regulatory system? Education? But then I realized, Johnson & Johnson spent $5.1 billion on selling the world soaps, shampoos and toothpastes in just the third quarter of 2008. McDonald’s spent more than $689 million selling the world hamburgers and french fries in 2006. And Proctor and Gamble spent over $7.9 billion selling the world laundry detergent, Pampers, batteries and Pringles. After seeing those numbers, am I really that upset that we spend $5 billion “selling” tomorrow’s democracy to the people? I don’t know.

Do you feel we spend too much on electing our leaders or not enough?