Georgia’s special election proves that money doesn’t matter in politics

It is a lesson that continues not to be learned by the political class, nor will it ever be learned, I fear. Yet the truth is the truth, no matter how deeply in denial we are — money simply doesn’t matter in politics.

I suppose it is at least somewhat logical to believe it does. More money can be translated into more television advertising, more mailers, more radio, and more campaign employees and offices.

Those extra resources must translate to more votes, right?

Well, the answer that we see over and over again, reinforced once again Tuesday night with the result in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, is that no, they really don’t.

The victorious campaign of Republican Karen Handel spent $3.2 million, while her opponent Jon Ossoff spent $22.5 million.

Handel did get more financial support than Ossoff from out-of-state groups, primarily the National Republican Congressional Committee and Paul Ryan’s political action committee, but the total spending still favored Ossoff, and he still lost.

Republican Karen Handel won a special election in Georgia Tuesday. REUTERS/Bita Honarvar

This happens all the time, and at all levels of politics, including presidential races. The Clinton campaign and it’s affiliated groups, for instance, spent about twice as much ($1.2 billion) as their Trumpian counterparts ($600 million), and still lost.

And of course, here in Maine we see it all the time in races big and small. Paul LePage was outraised and outspent in both of his gubernatorial elections, and still won.

There are literally hundreds of examples of this across the country.

So what’s the deal? Why do people continue to buy into the fallacy that money equals votes in politics?

Ultimately it boils down to a classic fallacy in the field of statistics: correlation does not imply causation.

In other words, just because two things correlate with each other does not mean that one variable creates the other. My favorite example of this concept is a chart showing that the global rise in temperatures correlates cleanly with the global reduction in the number of pirates, thereby implying that pirates fight global warming.

Of course, the reality is that correlations do not imply causation, pirates do not combat global warming, and there are other variables you are not considering that are the true causal agents.

In politics, this fallacy rears its ugly head in the connection between winning candidates, and superior fundraising numbers. You see one candidate outraise another, and you see that candidate win, therefore you believe that the candidate won because they had more money.

Yet, is that truly why they are winning, or are there other things at play here?

Money raised is usually — not always, but usually — a function of organization, and political skill. Candidates that put together solid teams that know what they are doing, and who are comfortable talking to people and painting a picture vivid enough that they would want to donate, typically do well raising money.  Candidates who put together amateur teams that don’t know what they are doing, and who are uncomfortable talking to people and can’t make a compelling case for their candidacy always have trouble raising money.

Those skills translate into political campaigns, and it is the skills that help raise money that lead to success, not the money itself. You need a compelling candidate and a well run campaign.

Think of it this way. Despite a blitzkreig of ads by the best that Madison Avenue could come up with, backed by millions of dollars of spending, did anyone really want to buy New Coke?

No, they didn’t. It was a titanic failure. At the end of the day, you have to have a compelling product — or candidate — to sell.

As I’ve told you before, money is important, and it can help you realize the innate potential that you have as a candidate. And yes, if one side has enough money to realize their potential, and the other side doesn’t, then no matter how compelling the disadvantaged side is, they will not reach their potential.

But there is a point at which you have enough money to make your case, and the voters have what they need to make a decision. Millions — or in the case of Georgia, tens of millions — of extra dollars will mean nothing, and in fact will often harm your candidacy by overexposing yourself and annoying voters.

In Georgia, Ossoff lost because he was a semi-employed 30-year old liberal carpetbagger running in a district he can’t vote in, backed by out-of-state elitists, running against a likable female Republican who more closely reflected the politics of the district.

In other words, as always, it was the candidates that mattered, not the money.

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.