The Myth of the Self-Funded Candidate

It takes a little history to appreciate how much money former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has put into her California gubernatorial campaign. Since winning the Republican nomination for governor in June, Whitman has spent $55 million on her race against Jerry Brown, a former two-term governor of California. From the primary to the present, Whitman -- one of California's wealthiest women -- has dropped $140 million into her campaign. By contrast, at general-election time in 2002, Gray Davis had spent $130 million on his gubernatorial bid, and likewise in 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger -- the penny-pincher, apparently -- had spent $55 million on his campaign.

The conventional wisdom is that high-spending candidates are winning candidates, but for all her cash, Whitman isn't doing too well in the polls; Nate Silver of the polling clearinghouse FiveThirtyEight forecasts a 3.6-point lead for Brown and gives Whitman a scant 25 percent chance of winning. And before you mark Whitman as an anomaly, it's worth noting that the two other famously self-financed candidates of this election year -- Carly Fiorina and Linda McMahon -- are also trailing their opponents, despite their willingness to spend. According to the most recent CNN poll of likely voters, Fiorina trails incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer by 9 points, and according to the most recent Rasmussen poll of likely voters, McMahon is well behind Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal with a deficit of 11 points. Of the top 10 self-financed candidates -- according to OpenSecrets.org -- only five are still running, and of those, only two -- Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Raese of West Virginia -- are likely to win their general elections. What's more, of the candidates who have financed the vast majority of their campaigns, only McMahon is still running for office.

For Americans used to rich candidates and expensive elections, this seems very strange. The reality, though, is that self-financed candidates have long struggled in their electoral bids. In 2006, of the 13 candidates who invested more than $1 million of their wealth into general-election campaigns for the House and Senate, only three made it to Congress. By contrast, of the top-spending candidates who ran in competitive districts and raised most of their cash through fundraising, the majority won.

Indeed, it's not a stretch to say that self-financing candidates are generally less likely to do well in elections. According to Jennifer Steen, a political scientist at Arizona State University and author of a book on the subject, "Self-financed candidates lack political experience, yet they run for high office." As she points out, it's very difficult to run a campaign for Senate or governor when "you don't have experience in politics, or even experience running a failed campaign." It's also not enough to buy good advice; campaigning is a skill, "and like any skill," Steen notes, "it takes practice."

That said, it's not lack of campaigning skills that hamper self-financed candidates. The dollar a candidate takes from his own wallet is different from the dollar he receives from a donor. Candidates that can raise money through fundraising are candidates with an actual base of support, and as political scientist Brad Alexander outlined in a 2005 paper, they have a better chance of attracting donations from political action committees and other strategic voters.

This advantage is rarely mentioned in public discussions of self-financed candidates, but it hasn't gone unnoticed. It forms a core assumption of bills like the Fair Elections Now Act, which require candidates to collect a large number of small contributions from their communities in order to qualify for government financing. That is, it's one thing for a candidate to give herself a few millions dollars, but if she can convince a few thousand people to contribute a few hundred dollars, then that says something important about her viability as a candidate and can bring others -- including party leaders -- to the table.

Indeed, by forgoing fundraising, self-financing candidates do more than miss out on a source of income; they miss out on the opportunity to create buzz, establish connections, and build relationships with important party activists and donors. As Steen notes, "You can campaign by going out to shake people's hands at an event and by sending direct mail, or you can pick up a phone and call to ask for a donation." Successful fundraising strengthens ties with important interest groups, mobilizes voter blocs, and helps a candidate build the majority necessary for victory. Simply put, while a check for oneself is nice, a strong network of supportive donors is far better.

Self-financed candidates can be successful -- Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin financed most of his campaigns, and former Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey relied heavily on his personal wealth throughout his political career -- but as we're seeing, and as we've always seen, a willingness to spend money isn't enough to seal the deal for would-be officeholders. For progressives, who often worry about the pernicious influence money has on campaigns and elections, this should be comforting. Entrenched interests are powerful, and their pockets are deep, but with hard work and skill, we can win those battles, too.

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