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Does Campaign Spending Confuse Voters?

- September 28, 2012

This is a guest post from political scientist Sean Richey.


What happens to voters when one candidate has more money to spend than another candidate? In a new article (gated, ungated), I show that skew in campaign spending—one side spending more than the other—has a troubling effect: it leads some voters to choose the candidate that least matches their views.

In every presidential election from 1972 to 2004, I drew on a large survey, the American National Election Study, that asks voters a wide range of questions about politics—demographics, party identification, views on issues, and the like.  Based on their answers and some statistical modeling, I can gauge who they are predicted to vote for and who they actually reported voting for—a technique developed by political scientists Richard Lau and David Redlawsk.  When there is a divergence from the actual and predicted vote, it suggests that voters are choosing the wrong candidate.

Voting for the wrong candidate systematically favors the better funded presidential candidate between 1972 and 2004. This tends to benefit Republican candidates: because they are generally better funded, they are able to gain about 4-5 percentage points more incorrect votes than Democratic candidates in that time, but with considerable variation between elections. I also show that the level of skew in incorrect voting has led to the incorrect candidate being elected in three out the last nine elections (or 2 of 9, if I do not include 2000).

This relationship between spending imbalances and voting behavior has important implications for campaign finance reform.  Various reforms, like the Comprehensive Clean Elections reforms that have been implemented at the state level, seek to equalize spending by candidates by matching funds throughout the campaign. If one candidate starts spending more, the other candidate gets more money from the state government. My research suggests that this might not only make elections more competitive, but enable voters to make choices more in line with their underlying values and beliefs.