Can Billionaires Buy Elections?

The news that Charles and David Koch and their network of conservative activists plan to spend $889 million on the 2016 elections has sent shockwaves throughout the political landscape. Publicized this week at a California gathering hosted by the business group Freedom Partners, this declaration of financial war raises the question of whether billionaires and their allies can buy elections.

As I note in my Brookings Institution Press book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, the answer in 2012 clearly was no. A few billionaires devoted several hundred million dollars seeking to defeat President Barack Obama yet lost. Republicans nominated a candidate who was easy to caricature as an out-of-touch plutocrat who did not share the values of ordinary Americans. The President was successful in using that stereotype to mobilize voters, expand the electorate, and appeal to basic fairness on the part of the general public.

Yet 2014 was a different story. Conservative billionaires were far more successful in helping Republicans regain control of the Senate, boost their House numbers, and increase their domination over governorships and state legislatures.  The country now has GOP control of the House and Senate, and 31 governorships across the country.

In analyzing why they lost the 2012 presidential campaign, conservative billionaires decided they needed to recalibrate their message and strategy for the midterms. For example, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) focused on ads that employed moving personal stories to deliver policy messages and a robust field operation. Central to their approach was the idea that Obamacare was a failure and hurting ordinary people.

Explaining this communications shift, AFP President Tim Phillips told a reporter that “too often, we did kind of broader statistical ads or messages, and we decided that we needed to start telling the story of how the liberals’ policies, whether it’s the administration or Congress, are practically impacting the lives of Americans every day.” Media expert Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media/CMAG correctly anticipated that those kinds of ads would have a greater likelihood of electoral success. “Ads that tell stories are more compelling than ads that don’t,” she said. “And ads that use sympathetic figures are more compelling, generally, than those that don’t.”

In looking ahead to 2016, there are ominous signs that big money may distort the election outcome. Wealthy interests were far more likely in 2012 to contribute to Republicans than Democrats. Even if Democrats mobilize liberal billionaires, the GOP nominee is going to have a substantial fundraising advantage.

Money alone, of course, does not dictate elections. Research shows clearly that public opinion, media coverage, campaign strategies, policy positions, and the nature of the times matter as well. However, during a time of rising campaign costs and limited public engagement in the political process, big money sets the agenda, affects how the campaign develops, and shapes how particular people and policy problems get defined. It takes skilled candidates, favorable media coverage, and strong organizational efforts to offset the power of great wealth.

There are no guarantees that the future Democratic nominee will replicate Obama’s 2012 success. If Republicans nominate someone who relates well to ordinary voters and they tone down policies that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, the money story in 2016 likely will turn out very different from the last time. Billionaire activism very well could tilt a close election in favor of conservative interests.