In politics, money is water. Make sure it doesn’t overflow

The next time people try to convince you that the candidate with the most money wins the election, kindly disagree.

Now, money matters. It does. You can’t run a political campaign without it. You need to be able to get your message out to voters, and it is simply impossible to do that without at least some money.

Many-a-political candidate has thought they could fight against an entrenched political figure, even without money, because their “message” was so good, and people would rally around it. They will lead a movement, they believe, and that movement will grow and challenge the entrenched establishment and monied interests.

These people are delusional. Money matters. But simply having more money itself doesn’t dictate who wins a political contest.

As an analogy, I always think of a campaign’s potential as an empty glass, and money as water.

The glass begins as an empty receptacle of potential. If you pour a small amount of water (money) in the glass, some of that potential is filled up, but most of it is still unfilled. If you stopped there, this would represent those plucky underdog candidates who have no idea what they’re doing and don’t have any money, but think they have a winning message. At the end of the day, they are just anonymous, underfunded candidates who will lose.

If you pour more water (money) in the glass, the potential begins to fill itself up, and that potential begins to be realized. The money helps get your message out. You can hire some staff who can help you plan and execute events. You can actually make direct contact with voters. One person alone can’t do all that, no matter how smart, dedicated or clever.

But something happens when the glass is filled up. You reach your potential, and you can’t fill up the glass anymore. Yet too often, candidates keep pouring the water, because they believe money equals results.

When that happens, you aren’t actually making your campaign better. You’ve already gotten your message out. You’ve already hired staff. The voters have already heard what you are selling — they either like it or they don’t. At this point you are just spilling water on the table, which actually ends up making your campaign worse, not better.

I realize this analogy is getting a bit silly, but I believe it describes politics well. Too often, the campaign goal becomes to raise as much as possible rather than to raise as much as necessary. When you raise and spend more than is necessary, you are actually harming your campaign.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a Washington, D.C., ceremony to unveil a portrait of retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Hillary Clinton speaks at a Washington, D.C., ceremony to unveil a portrait of retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

This year, we have probably the ultimate example of that. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, through its various organs, raised and spent more than $1.2 billion.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, spent about $600 million on his campaign.

What did that extra $600 million do for Clinton? Well, it paid a lot of campaign cronies. Lots of consultants. A million television ads. An avalanche of brick and mortar offices and expensive staff overhead. In other words, a lot of waste that didn’t add anything to her campaign.

Think of just the television. Did seeing Clinton’s ads on television 10 times in an hour somehow make her message more appealing than it would have been if you had seen her ad five times an hour?

At some point, you have oversaturated the market and you actually begin to infuriate people by being too obtrusive. It is probably the single biggest complaint about politics — all the damn ads that won’t stop and don’t make a difference to voters.

If you don’t have a message people want to buy — as was true for Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine’s Second District — then no amount of money will drag you over the finish line.

Contrast that with Trump, who spent his time and money on direct voter contact, speaking directly with people, and got more attention out of a single tweet than any television ad Hillary Clinton could ever cut.

Could Trump have spent money in better places? Sure. He had his own share of cronies and consultants, and sent a shocking amount of money to his own companies.

Yet, at the end of the day, he spent the right amount of money where it actually mattered, and didn’t obsess over spending more just to win the money race.

History is replete with candidates who raised and spent less, but won big, including Maine’s governor, Paul LePage. All that matters is that you fill up that glass as full as you can, and then stop pouring.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.