Like many people of my ideological persuasion I have been quite critical of the Citizens United decision that allows essentially unlimited electioneering – namely spending on advertising – by non-campaign or -candidate groups. It has unarguably turned campaign finance, which was approaching Thunderdome before Citizens, into something at or perhaps even beyond Thunderdome. No one to the left of Mitch McConnell thinks this is a good development and we'll no doubt be seeing a $10 billion plus presidential election in 2012.
That said, I have been increasingly interested (in the context of my day job) in the question of what all of this money buys in elections. And the more I reflect upon and study the issue, the more convinced I become that the money would be just as productively used by throwing it on a raging bonfire.
I will not subject you to an extended review of the political science literature on the role of money in elections. Suffice it to say for these purposes that money is a necessary component of winning elections. Yet research also argues quite persuasively that money can't buy an election. So basically candidates need some non-zero amount of money but there is a threshold beyond which additional money accomplishes little to nothing.
Money buys useful things in elections. Any candidate for a statewide office (Senate, Governor, etc.) or legislative seat needs a certain amount of money to have a realistic shot at winning. That amount varies by the size and importance of the race, but the basic necessities vary little among offices: competent professional staff (campaign manager, volunteer coordinator, etc.), administrative and logistical costs, advertising, dealing with the media, and so on. These are the basics for any remotely Serious Congressional campaign or whatever. Beyond the nuts and bolts of office space, yard signs, staffers, mailers & phone banks, and the other basic costs of maintaining a campaign organization, the vast majority of additional money is spent on advertising. For non-campaign groups – the kind of independent organizations affected by Citizens United – the only relevant costs are advertising and some mobilization (GOTV) stuff.
Accordingly, asking whether money matters is essentially asking if advertising matters. Much like money, advertising has a threshold beyond which its marginal effects are indistinguishable from zero. There are different schools of thought on this issue, but my personal bias favors the argument that the threshold is very, very low. Advertising is good for name recognition and not much else. As you sit through the barrage of TV commercials for this year's candidates, ask yourself who is actually persuaded by any of this crap. Individuals' own preferences and partisan predispositions are an effective screen; in other words, any message from the opposite party is heavily discounted if not ignored altogether. If you're a Republican, you're going to tell yourself that anything in the Democrats' commercials is untrue and untrustworthy anyway.
But true independent/undecided voters could be persuaded, you say. Even if we accept the shaky premise that they will be persuaded by something as clearly lacking in credibility as a TV commercial, what does seeing the commercial 500 times accomplish that seeing it 10 times would not? I can accept that some voters – some – might legitimately be influenced by advertising no matter how ridiculous the commercials appear to the rest of us. But it is not at all clear that the ads are effective enough (or sufficiently effective with a sufficiently large portion of the electorate) to make any real difference.
Money matters. If nothing else it is a sign of legitimacy that scares away potential challengers and ensures that a candidate can do the bare minimum required to mount a campaign that could be considered serious. But it becomes difficult to get worked up about obscene levels of spending in our elections so much of it is spent on advertising, the marginal effects of which are extremely small beyond creating name recognition. In short, I am not convinced that George Soros or Tea Party USA spending half a billion dollars on commercials really has any impact on elections. Most of us don't pay any attention to them. For those who do, does seeing the same ad a few hundred additional times really matter?
The issue of campaign spending in a post-Citizens United world isn't really one of "buying" elections but of spending unfathomably large sums of money on the very slim odds that the very small group of voters who are persuaded by seeing a commercial a thousand times will be the deciding factor in a given race. I struggle to think of a less useful way to spend so much money.