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Bloomberg’s Money Bought Him Something — Just Not The Nomination

Money can buy happiness — but it apparently can’t buy Michael Bloomberg the Democratic nomination. The former mayor of New York City dropped out of the race this week after spending more than $500 million on ads, events, and campaign staff. (Maybe he feels happy now? What else do billionaires do for entertainment?)

Bloomberg was like a daredevil stuffed into a cannon at a circus sideshow. He went up, he got attention, he crashed back down. But in his ignominious arc we can see the contrail of a bigger question plaguing modern politics: Just how powerful is money, exactly, in determining the outcomes of elections?

Let’s be clear, Bloomberg’s cash did have some effect. After entering the race with minimal support in November, he was as high as 16.5 percent in our national polling average by Feb. 22 — enough, at the time, to tie former Vice President Joe Biden for second place. Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and other candidates didn’t come close to those kind of numbers. But Bloomberg’s growth in the polls didn’t translate into votes when it counted.

And that’s not a huge surprise if you’ve looked closely on the research surrounding the influence of money in politics. While political scientists have been able to show a relationship between the money spent by lobbyists and the outcomes of policy votes, the research on whether money can buy votes in an election is murkier.

Confidence Interval: The Bloomberg campaign isn’t actually ending

We know, for example, that politicians with no real risk of losing their races routinely plunk down massive sums of cash against opponents who are spending literally nothing. (Like literally literally, not metaphorically literally.) They’re usually races involving incumbents (who usually win) running in heavily partisan districts (which are easy to win) during general elections (that is to say, against the party their partisans hate). The money serves to show donors that it’s still worth donating, and to prove to constituents that you care about them. Situations like that highlight the outsized influence of redistricting and partisanship. Campaign spending becomes window dressing to legitimize a race that would take way more talent and effort to lose than to win.

We also know advertising isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, you can show that ads influence people’s opinion of a candidate or boost the candidate’s name recognition. But efforts to link that to real-world votes have not found a conclusive correlation. Meanwhile, the power of fake news sites to truly change public opinion has probably been overestimated, as well.

But at the same time, money isn’t worthless. If voters don’t know who you are or know you’re running, you need money to establish yourself as, well, a person who exists and could maybe be trusted with power. Especially in a busy primary where all the candidates are — more or less — on the same team. You can’t rely on pure, partisan, Grade-A hatred of the other candidate to carry you to a win, so it’s nice to be able to plunk down a few hundred million.

In some ways, Bloomberg’s very expensive loss is a reflection of everything we already know about money in politics. Spend enough, and you can go from “who?” to “hey, it’s that guy!” real fast. But there’s probably not enough money in the world to make people vote for you if one of your competitors eats your face on live TV. Or if voters would just rather vote for someone else.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.