There will be more money spent on the 2016 presidential election than any before in human history. OK, we don't know that with absolute certainty, but let's just say it would shocking if it didn't turn out to be true. The Koch brothers alone have promised to raise and spend the awfully specific amount of $889 million on the election, and that's before we even get to the candidates, the parties, and all the other millionaires and billionaires eager to demonstrate their public-spiritedness by pouring buckets of cash on their preferred candidates. Is it horrifying? Absolutely. But this could well be a campaign in which there's so much money sloshing around that money makes almost no difference in the end.
Just to be clear, in no way am I defending the American campaign finance system, which ought to be an enduring source of national shame. And I'm not talking about all the down-ballot races, where an injection of outside money can determine the results. I'm sure not talking about the fact that we even elect judges in what are now well-funded campaigns, a practice so appalling that it is duplicated almost nowhere else in the world. But if there's any campaign in which money won't determine the outcome, it's the presidential race—precisely the one where money will pour down like a monsoon.
There are a couple of reasons. The first is that money makes its biggest impact when there's an imbalance, where one candidate can dramatically outspend the other. This is often the case in congressional races and even sometimes in Senate races, where one competitor (usually the incumbent) swamps the other and ends up being the only voice voters hear.
But that won't be the case in a presidential campaign. What matters is the relative advantage one side might have, not the absolute difference in dollars, and in any presidential race the relative advantage is going to be small. For instance, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, even though Barack Obama raised a quarter of a billion dollars more than Mitt Romney in 2012, Romney's deficit was overcome by donors to the GOP and outside groups; when you added it all up, the Red Team spent $1.2 billion and the Blue Team spent $1.1 billion. That extra $100 million Republicans spent didn't make much of a difference.
That's largely because of the second reason money won't determine the winner of the presidential race: the more people know about, hear about, and talk about the campaign, the less important campaign spending is. Chances are you'll know very little about the contenders in your state representative contest next year, so a volunteer chatting you up on your doorstep or a well-timed flyer in the mail could actually sway your vote by telling you something you hadn't heard or just giving you a warm feeling about one of the candidates. But with the presidential race the focus of so much attention, the things the campaigns and outside groups spend money on end up being a much smaller proportion of everything voters hear about the race.
So here's what will happen in the 2016 general election. The Republican candidate will raise and spend a huge amount of money. Republican superdonors will spend a huge amount of money trying to get him elected, perhaps more than he spends on his own. Hillary Clinton will also raise a huge amount of money, and Democratic superdonors will spend amply on her behalf (though not in quite the quantity as their Republican counterparts). And in the end, it will nearly even out.
That does make the likes of the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson a little less frightening. Adelson spent somewhere between $100 million and $150 million in the 2012 election, money that enriched many a Republican political consultant and local TV station, but didn't actually accomplish Adelson's goal of bringing down Barack Obama. A somewhat less sunny way to look at it is that what ultimately blunts the influence of Republican billionaires is a corporatized Democratic Party that can go to Wall Street and other centers of wealth and power to raise what's necessary to stay competitive—but let's leave that story for another day.
Even in the primaries, the billionaires don't seem to be able to get what they want, no matter how much they spend. Adelson came to wide public attention four years ago when he gave $20 million to Winning the Future, a super PAC attempting to secure the GOP nomination for Newt Gingrich. Adelson's plan failed when voters realized that Newt Gingrich was, in fact, Newt Gingrich.
Money still matters in primaries, particularly competitive ones with lots of candidates, like we're seeing on the Republican side. But the realization that lots of money is necessary but not sufficient for victory seems to have sunk in. Jeb Bush planned to blow away the rest of the field with a "shock and awe" fundraising campaign that would prove so formidable that other candidates would skitter away in terror, but in the end it didn't really scare anybody. That's not because Jeb won't raise plenty of money, or even because he won't outraise the rest of the Republican field (he probably will), but because few people are all that intimidated by a well-funded primary opponent.
The real problem with all this election spending isn't what happens during the campaign, it's what happens after. The danger isn't that the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, or any other billionaire (or collection of billionaires) is going to foist upon an unsuspecting public some unprepared or reckless president. We may get such presidents again, as we have in the past, but it won't be because America's plutocrats bought our votes. The problem is that once someone rides to victory on those waves of cash, what they do in office—whether we're talking about a president or a senator or a congressman—is almost inevitably distorted by the interests of their patrons.
Which is why those patrons do it, after all. And that's what we should worry about.