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Republican megadonors are sad that elections are so hard to buy

Gabe Sherman reports that Republican megadonors are getting frustrated that it's proving so hard to buy a presidential election. "I gave Rove $500,000," complains Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who was one of the many rich Republicans to donate to Karl Rove's Super PAC only to watch Barack Obama win reelection. "What did I get for it? Nothing!"

The lesson these donors took from Rove's 2012 failure is that if you want a job done right, do it yourself — so now they're creating their own Super PACs, run by political consultants who answer directly to them. In the article's most amusing sentence, Sherman reports, "John Jordan now supports Republican candidates through his own super-pac, which applies the lessons he’s learned from winemaking." Good luck with that.

But so far, 2016 isn't looking so different from 2012 — whatever is driving the Republican presidential primary, it's not ad spending. This chart from Andrew Prokop and Javier Zarracina tells the tale well:

Ad spending graphic
Ad spending from candidates' campaigns and outside operations so far (Javier Zarracina/Vox)

It's worth focusing on Jeb Bush's bubble. "Team Bush's spending is twice as much as the combined money spent on ads for the top four GOP candidates in the polls — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson," writes Prokop. "Yet Bush remains in the low single digits in polls nationally and in early states." Ouch.

Out of curiosity, I made a scatter plot of the same data, which helps show just how little relationship ad spending has had to poll numbers in the Republican primary:

ad spending and poll numbers 12/14 That sad little dot way out on the right? That's Jeb Bush, whose operation has basically lit $32 million on fire.

The correlation, in case you're wondering, is -0.2 — that is to say, ad spending is negatively correlated with polling averages in the Republican primary so far. (Which is one reason it's odd that Marco Rubio is betting so heavily on ad spending.)

Does that mean ad spending actually drives down poll numbers? Of course not. The likely explanation is that candidates who are down in the polls spend more on ads in order to make up the gap. Or maybe it's just that ads aren't mattering much in either direction.

This is, however, the time when you'd expect ads to have the most impact on the presidential race — the candidates are still relatively unknown, the airwaves remain relatively unclogged, and voter perceptions remain relatively soft. The fact that ads appear to be having basically no impact in the race — and are barely being used by the frontrunner — is good news for people who like bad news about the efficacy of political advertising.

And in truth, that should be all of us (unless you're a political consultant or an ad producer). The big lesson here is that elections (particularly presidential elections) are actually really hard to buy. The modal outcome of a millionaire (or billionaire) spending a lot of money to influence an election is that the millionaire wastes his money. This holds true when the spending is on behalf of someone else (like with Langone and Romney), and it's true when the millionaire or billionaire is spending on his own campaign:

Out of the eight Senate and House candidates who spent the most of their own money on their campaigns in 2010, just one ended up winning. The losers — most of whom were unsuccessful Republicans in a year their party swept a majority of congressional races — included Linda McMahon, who spent $46 million running for Senate in Connecticut, and Carly Fiorina, who spent $5.5 million running for Senate in California. Most impressive of all was Meg Whitman's losing campaign for governor of California — she spent around $144 million of her own money and lost by 13 percentage points.

Their losses are nothing new. Political scientist Adam Brown found that self-funders in gubernatorial races had poor showings in a 2009 research presentation titled "What Money Can't Buy." And political scientist Jennifer Steen reviewed congressional self-funders in a 2006 book on self-financing and found that, amazingly enough, "a candidate's chance of winning a primary or general election tends to decrease as the amount of personal funds invested in their campaigns increases."

So it's amusing to watch these donors respond to 2012 by starting up their own Super PACs. Karl Rove's effort was a fiasco, but Rove is still much, much better at winning elections than your average hedge funder. The problem wasn't that the Republican donor class hired the wrong help, but rather that — contrary to their hopes and to popular fears — presidential elections are very, very hard to buy.

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