Campaign Finance: This is (not) What Democracy Looks Like

| 4/19/2012 9:54:35 AM

Money in politics is a murky subject. The line between an official campaign and a Super PAC is blurry at best, and the "revolving door" between lobbies, bureaucrats and elected officials seems to grow wider with every election. Voters are overwhelmingly opposed to corporate influence in elections and decisions like Citizens United, and yet, there is a good deal of evidence that such big spending really does work.

Take state elections. A website called Follow The Money has produced a number of fascinating graphics that chart the role of money in recent state-level contests. The site is run by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and provides a nice companion to Open Secrets, which focuses more on federal races. Now, most of the 2012 data aren’t available yet, but many of the maps and charts go back as far as 1996, and paint a pretty clear picture of how significant big money can be. 

Minnesota 2008 PULSE 

One measure, called PULSE, charts campaign contributions in state elections using a couple of box-and-whisker plots—one for winners, one for losers. The 2008 results from my home state of Minnesota are above, showing all state offices that were up for reelection. Each dot is an individual candidate, with red for GOP, blue for Democrats, and green for third parties (the yellow centers indicate incumbents). As you can see, the winners as a group spent much more money trying to, well, win. This group is also full of outliers who spent a lot more than the winners’ average, while the losers’ outliers tend to go in the opposite direction.

In Minnesota at least, money seems to determine a lot. But what’s interesting is that these are actually really good numbers compared to other states. In California, which has much less competitive races in terms of campaign contributions, the charts looks very different: 

  California 2008 PULSE 3