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Money & Politics: Freakonomics Author Gives “Big Fat No” to Idea Money Buys Elections

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Daily Ticker

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According to conventional wisdom, Mitt Romney's big Florida primary win can be attributed to one thing: Money.

Romney's campaign outspent Gingrich by nearly 5-to-1 in the Sunshine State, with $15.4 million spent by Romney and pro-Romney Super PACs vs. just $3.7 million by Gingrich and his supporters, The NY Times reports.

But Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner has made a (very) successful career of debunking conventional wisdom and gives a "big fat no" to the idea that money won the Florida election for Romney (or any election, for that matter.)

"It's one of the great truisms in politics - 'money buys elections'," he says. "But it's just really not so."

Citing the research of his co-author and University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt has done, Dubner says a candidate who doubles their spending gets an extra 1% of the popular vote. Conversely, candidates who halved their spending lost 1% of the vote. This is true in races where the same candidates run against each other multiple times and when other factors, such as the power of incumbency, are controlled for.

And if you think about the many well-heeled candidates -- like Steve Forbes, Linda McMahon and Meg Whitman -- who've outspent their opponents by a big factor and still lost, you can start to see the Freakonomics point of view.

Money is definitely "influential" on outcomes but "not at all" as important as what conventional wisdom holds, Dubner says.

The theoretically unlimited spending by Super PACs is a relatively new phenomenon in politics and Dubner admits there's no way to calculate the impact negative ads have on voters' view of an opponent. "And people who tell you they do are lying."

Correlation vs. Causation

The influence of Super PACs may be uncertain but he says the roughly $10 million Sheldon Adelson and his wife have spent supporting Newt Gingrich pales in comparison to the "$100 of millions" of dollars worth of "free advertising" major candidates get from coverage on the nightly news or participating in televised debates.

"It's true money matters [and] in a lot of different ways," Dubner says. "But the idea that the guy who has the most money and then spend it to get the most people to vote for him is one of these causal fallacies we'd all be really well to disabuse ourselves from."

To Dubner, the most important factor determining the outcome of elections is a candidate's likability, which in turn can drive people to contribute to their campaign. Attributing money to the outcome of elections is like blaming the rain on people using umbrellas, he quips. "Just because two things go together doesn't mean one causes the other."

Maybe so, but that won't stop most pundits from focusing on "money bombs" and other fundraising tallies as the 2012 campaign rolls on.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.