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Sometimes, Money Can’t Buy You Votes

One group of candidates who have struggled of late are those who are largely self-financed:

  • Connecticut’s Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, stalled out in the polls against Richard Blumenthal a few weeks ago after having gained significant ground on him during the summer months. She trails by double digits in most surveys of the state and now appears bound to lose.
  • In California, Meg Whitman’s chances have deteriorated against Jerry Brown over the course of the past month, and if she were to salvage her campaign, it would be a bona fide upset — not the position that she would have hoped for after investing more than $160 million in her campaign.
  • Carl P. Paladino, who had promised to spend $10 million out of his own pocket on the governor’s race in New York, will almost certainly lose to Andrew Cuomo; the question is whether he can hold Mr. Cuomo’s margin of victory to within 20 points.
  • Rick Scott’s position in Florida, where he is the Republican nominee for governor, remains viable; his race is a toss-up against Alex Sink. But with the G.O.P. poised to win a clear majority of open-seat governor’s races, and with the Republican Senate nominee Marco Rubio seeming to have his race well in hand, Mr. Scott is probably underperforming.
  • Tom Ganley, who tops House candidates in out-of-pocket spending, appears bound to lose his race in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District now that sexual harassment allegations have emerged against him.

Several other self-financed candidates, like Nevada’s Sue Lowden, New Mexico’s Allen Weh, Florida’s Jeff Greene, and New Hampshire’s William Binnie, failed to win their primaries. And 2009 had been rough year for self-financed candidates as well, with Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey losing his re-election bid in spite of having invested $28 million in it, and Mayor Michael R, Bloomberg of New York City nearly doing so despite spending in excess of $100 million.

Some of this, perhaps, has to do with the mood of the country at a time when many people are struggling to make ends meet. Depending on one’s line of business, having been a successful chief executive or entrepreneur is not the unambiguously positive credential that it can be during boom years.

But the fact is that such self-financed candidates have a long history of struggling to win election.

This year, the Center For Responsive Politics published a list of the Top 100 self-funders in federal races (that is, candidates for president, Senate or the House of Representatives). Five of these candidates, like Ms. McMahon and Mr. Ganley, are on this November’s ballot, but we can evaluate the fate of the other 95.

I divided these 95 candidates into three groups: incumbents, challengers to seats occupied by an incumbent, and candidates in open-seat races:

Incumbents. Only 8 of the candidates were incumbents, and 6 of them won their races; the exceptions were Elizabeth Dole and Charles H. Taylor.

Open-seat races. Here, however, the self-financed candidates ran into more problems. Of the top 40 self-financed candidates for open seats, exactly half failed to win their primaries. Of the 20 who survived, only 8 won their general election bid, in spite of usually having a large financial advantage over their opponents.

Challengers. The remaining 47 candidates ran for seats occupied by incumbents. Of these 47, 32 advanced past the primary, but just 7 of the 32 won the general election.

Over all, just 21 of the 95 candidates, or 22 percent, win the office that they were seeking.

Arguably, the performance of the challengers is not all that bad, since knocking off an incumbent is usually a difficult task. And there have been some notable successes: for instance, John Edwards, Bill Frist and Alan Grayson each relied largely on their own money en route to beating incumbents. The performance of the open-seat candidates, however, is pretty awful, with their bids succeeding only 20 percent of the time.

Similar studies have been conducted at the state level, including candidates for offices such as governor, and have found an even lower success rate: just 11 percent of the top self-financers won their bids for statewide office.

Why have these candidates performed so poorly? There are several things to consider.

First, these candidates usually lack experience in running for political office, and therefore may have their share of awkward moments around voters, or may not know much about the day-to-day business of running a campaign. Also, these candidates will usually not have been vetted by voters, so there is more risk of there being skeletons in their closet. It might behoove candidates who are serious about making a second career out of elected office to pursue an office like state treasurer first, rather than immediately stepping into a Senate campaign or a governor’s race.

Second, there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, and some empirical evidence, that there are diminishing returns on advertising spending, which is the primary way that self-funding dollars manifest themselves. Once a candidate has achieved near-universal name recognition, and has had the opportunity to advance two or three key messages that voters will carry into the polling place, additional advertising may do little good and may even annoy or confuse voters. A Quinnipiac poll last month, for instance, found while 95 percent of Connecticut residents had seen one of Ms. McMahon’s ads, 56 percent found them annoying.

Another way candidates can sometimes get themselves in trouble is by overstaffing. With money not at issue, there can be an impulse to load up on big-name talent because they can afford it, without considering that the advisers may have strong egos and competing visions and the result can be a campaign that lacks a cohesive strategy.

The third problem applies to candidates like Ms. McMahon who do not supplement their own funds with contributions from regular voters. Fund-raising might seem like a chore to candidates, but it can be valuable in other ways. It allows you to identify some of our most enthusiastic supporters, who may be useful later on in knocking on doors and evangelizing for you to their friends and neighbors. And fund-raising data, especially in the Internet age, also provide the candidate with valuable and virtually real-time information about how voters are reacting to developments in the campaign. If your contributions spike, for instance, after your opponent debuts a new attack ad, that could be an indication that voters perceive the attack as being unfair, which can help you to prepare your counteroffensive.

Finally, beyond a certain point, candidates may risk the perception that they are buying the office, which will rarely go over well with voters. Consider the case of Mr. Bloomberg, for instance. Exit polls suggested that 70 percent of New York voters approved of his tenure as mayor, a figure that would ordinarily assure re-election by a landslide margin. But 28 percent of voters who approved of his performance nevertheless voted against him. There may have been a variety of reasons for this — Mr. Bloomberg had worked to get the city’s term-limits law changed, for instance, to allow him to run for office again, and his voters may have felt safe in casting a protest vote since polls suggested that the race was not as close as it in fact turned out to be. Nevertheless, these sorts of candidates are not likely to get the benefit of the doubt from voters.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.