Why US election campaigns waste so much money

The amount of money that is spent on US elections is ridiculous. Each major party will spend around the order of a billion dollars on presidential elections. The reasons for this are many. The fact that the date of the elections are fixed in advance means that a new campaign starts as soon as the earlier one ends, and even earlier, and more time correlates with more money. Another reason is that campaign finance laws are almost non-existent, thus enabling wealthy players to buy access and thus influence candidates via campaign contributions.

Andrew Cockburn in the April 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine has an article Down the Tube (subscription may be required) that says that there is yet another factor at work, and that is the election-industrial complex of campaign consulting firms who siphon money and efforts towards the most expensive form of campaigning there is, television advertising, even though the evidence suggests that they are of marginal effectiveness. He says that these firms take advantage of naïve rich people who contribute huge sums of money and the candidates who work hard to raise that money.

Why is that? Because TV stations make a ton of money from campaign advertisements and they have a system whereby they return a portion of the cost of the ads to the campaign ad operatives who buy the ads on behalf of the candidates.

Curious to learn more about industry economics, I sought insider wisdom from Mark McKinnon, an affable Texan who has directed an impressive number of election victories, including George W. Bush’s media campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Obligingly, he briefed me on how the arrival of unsophisticated players has so greatly benefited the professionals: “The people who produce the media and buy the media get a refund from the television stations. In the old days, that was a fifteen percent rebate. For the longest time we would make deals with the campaign and say, ‘Don’t worry about this, you don’t have to actually pay us, because we’re getting compensated by commission.’ It never seemed like real money to the campaign, because they didn’t have to write a check to us, it just came back to us from the TV station, even though in reality it was their money. Meanwhile, the stations were making us rich.” He hastened to add that no such commissions were extracted by his firm, Maverick Media, during the Bush campaigns.

There is plenty of evidence that TV advertising, partisan mailings, and robocalls that drive people crazy during the election season have little effect on voter turnout or how people vote, except perhaps in a few cases such as bringing an unknown candidate to the public’s attention.

According to David Broockman, a political scientist at Stanford, multiple studies have demonstrated that such ads are essentially self-erasing. “There really is not much evidence that TV has a long-lasting effect on people’s views,” he told me. “Someone sees a TV ad on Monday afternoon, they change who they say they’ll vote for on a survey on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, their view has snapped back to what it was on Monday morning before they saw the ad, because they’ve just forgotten it.”

But one method does work.

Of all the ways to get people to come out and vote tested by the academics, one emerged as the absolute gold standard. Talking to them face-to-face, the longer the better, turned out to have a dramatic effect. This is known in the trade as the “ground campaign” or “field operation,” conducted by volunteers or paid staff, preferably from the neighborhood they are canvassing. It doesn’t come free: the canvassers, even if they are volunteers, have to be housed, fed, trained, and transported. Yet the effect is infinitely more cost-effective than any traditional media-heavy approach.

So why is this method not used more? Simple.

It is easy to understand why establishment groups might recoil from a volunteer-based, low-cost strategy. Not only does it offer little promise of revenue, it necessarily relies on people more committed and militant than those at the center may deem acceptable.

“I have never, ever met a candidate who did not profess a total commitment to old-fashioned voter contact,” [CREDO co-founder Michael] Kieschnick told me recently. “But if you look under the hood of the campaign, the candidates spend most of their time raising money for television ads. Candidates fear being told their opponents have an ad when they do not, even if it makes no difference. It is easy for consultants to raise money, for a fee, and then spend it on advertising, and get another fee. But where is the fee on volunteers?”

One might argue that all this money is not entirely wasted, that it pumps money into the economy and creates jobs. But the real negative effect is that by making campaigns so expensive, it discourages good candidates who find sucking up to wealthy people distasteful from running for office, and it does little to energize people the way that grass roots, door-to-door campaigns can do.


  1. says

    There are many things wrong with the UK; but one thing we got right was to impose strict limits on the amount any party or candidate can spend on their election campaign.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Lots (LOTS) of campaign post-mortem anecdata very strongly suggests that (at least) the last-minute smear attack does have a strong effect.

    Possibly many of the walking-over-green-fields-with-the-smiling-wife-2.2-kids-and-golden-retriever ads are planned purely as a defense to inoculate against that.

  3. flex says

    I’ve been working elections for more than 20 years now. I’m on the ballot for the 3rd time as a Township Trustee, and I worked a number election cycles before that on local and state elections. I’ve also been associated with a few elections for the House of Representatives, although I’ve not worked directly on those campaigns.

    My experience is precisely what Broockman says. Without doing any studies, my opinion of the effectiveness all the attempts to engage voters is ranked as follows:

    1. Direct contact with the candidate. Not at a speaking venue, but the candidate going door-to-door, or working a party. The candidate must be engaged and (appear) interested in the person they are meeting. This is by far the most effective way to convince a voter to vote for you.

    2. Direct contact with a canvasser for the candidate. People may not care all that much for people knocking on their doors (and I’ve worked out some guidelines for times and strategies for knocking which make the encounter more comfortable for both the canvasser as well as the voter), but the voter will respect the effort made by someone coming to the door in support of a candidate.

    3. Yard signs. I personally do not like yard signs, but I know that they work. They work best if they are in yards of people well known (and liked) in the neighborhood. They do not work as well when they are along the road or in right-of-ways. They shouldn’t be placed in the yard of the person in the neighborhood who everyone hates. So identifying the leaders of a community is fairly important (which is also why you need volunteers from each community who know who are the right yards to get signs in).

    4. Flyers/Television/Radio advertisements -- Not all that effective. Flyers are thrown away (I always put the date of the election on them so there is some incentive for a person to hold onto them). Television commercials are generally ignored. Radio spots can be effective, but only with the people who tune into those stations.

    Now for an anecdote.

    Many years ago I was on the outskirts of the campaign of a Democratic Party challenger in a House of Representative election against an incumbent Republican. The republican incumbent had lost some popularity, the area had shifted a little more liberal, and it looked like a good possibility that the challenger could beat the incumbent. It looked so good that the DCCC decided to get involved.

    The DCCC sent money, too much money, and a list of consultants to spend the money on. All of a sudden the ground game, which our local campaign office was supporting, was pretty much stopped. The money went to radio and television spots. As usual, in this community candidates march in the 4th of July parade, it’s a pretty effective means of exposure. BTW, if you are a candidate and in a parade, walk. Do not ride in a car, do not ride a bike or scooter, voters like to see that their candidate are healthy and it’s easier for a voter to identify with a walking candidate than one riding. Weird, but I’ve seen it work.

    I was handing our literature in that parade for other local candidates, and as a goodwill act we also handed out literature for the challenger. Most campaign literature is printed cheaply, and usually post-card size or smaller, because anyone who’s been in a campaign knows how much of it is thrown away. The campaign literature for the challenger was letter-sized, two-sided, and glossy. I’ll spend $300 to get 1,000 double-sided bookmarks printed on cheap card. This literature probably cost 10-times as much, and was being handed out at a parade. Well over 95% of that literature was thrown away without being taken home, let alone read.

    After a good, solid, beginning with an experienced ground-game team, once the DCCC got involved the challenger started to loose ground in the polls and ultimately lost the election. Money certainly influences elections, but the money has to be spent on people who will work them. Money used to saturate television and radio space will lose to a candidate who spends 1/10th as much, but has a solid door-to-door campaign.

  4. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for that post! It is always good to get information based on actual experience.

  5. DonDueed says

    Regarding television, there are cases where it can be very effective. There was an example here in the Commonwealth about a decade back. There was a 4-way primary race for State Treasurer, and two of the four candidates had the same last name, Cahill. One of those two was considered a long shot, with little experience (none at the state government level). But he put out some memorable TV ads with his young daughter boosting “Tim for Treasurer”. He won the primary and the general election.

    Later he ran into some legal trouble when he used promos for the state lottery to boost his subsequent run for Governor. “Tim for Treasurer” no longer holds public office.

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