The millions donated to a campaign by some “person” (i.e., according to the Supreme Court, some individual or some corporation) may well earn back many times that amount in access and influence – if the candidate wins. But what if the candidate loses?
Is money given to a political campaign an investment? or is it a gamble – an informed gamble, like betting on a horse? Like a serious punter at the track, as a political campaign donor you choose your candidate with care: What are his chances of winning? You balance those odds with the amount of access and influence you will have, if he wins. Needless to say, if you are an individual and not a corporation, his political leanings must be similar to yours, and you have to like him, or at least feel it was an honor to have shaken his hand at that $1,000-a-plate dinner.
It is true that, unlike the money bet on a horse, the money you bet on a candidate does increase his chances of winning – but to an infinitesimal degree. Every million dollars you donate does not mean one million more votes – far, far, from it.
A typical Presidential campaign spends 66% of its money on advertising. (10% is spent on fundraising, money spent on raising more money. The rest goes towards administrative expenses.) How many voters will make up their minds or change them thanks to the $665,000 worth of television and radio commercials, internet ads, targeted mailings and phone calls, blast faxes and campaign posters your million dollars have bought? If you are lucky, maybe 100.
About half that advertising budget goes to television ads, whose costs average out to about half-a-million each. But most of the people I know seldom watch commercial television. They might watch news shows that have ads, or sports events, but they go out of their way, even spend money, to avoid advertisements. They watch their favorite shows as on-demand offerings or on Netflix or Hulu. Admittedly, these people are a rarified group. There still must be a large bunch of people who habitually tune in to regular network TV – but how large a bunch? However large it is, it is growing smaller and smaller (just read the business pages).
Political advertising’s bang for the buck is further diminished by the internet. One viral You Tube video that cost $100 can have a greater effect on voters than a million-dollar ad campaign. In a few hours, a sardonic remark by Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow echoing around the internet, or simply an unforeseen news event, can wipe out a month’s work by a committee of expensive PR consultants.
As the Daily Kos elegantly put it last month:
Next year we'll see the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the air to change exactly zero minds. When it comes to President, people have already made up their minds, and those who haven't (particularly in primaries) won't make their decision based on 30-second spots that they're skipping or ignoring.
But perhaps a political contribution is more of an investment than a gamble. If your horse loses, you’ve lost your entire bet; if your candidate drops out of the race or loses – well, he’s still around and he still owes you. If you donated to Rick Perry’s campaign, you won’t be getting your money back, but Perry might still get a cabinet post if the Republicans take the White House. Even if Perry ends up without an office and enters the private sector, he’s bound to be a player in high stakes deals – Texas real estate, perhaps. As with an investment, unlike a bet, even if you lose – barring a disaster equivalent to bankruptcy to your guy’s status as a VIP – your stake retains some value, be it a diminished one.
You might feel that, whether your candidate wins or loses, the added prestige of just being listed as a wealthy political campaign contributor is worth a million dollars. After all, what is a million dollars to someone worth five billion? Not that much. In a ratio based on relative net worth, a million dollars to a billionaire is a small fraction of what a couple with a measly million in assets spends on a two-week Viking River cruise.