Planet Money Examines How Presidential Candidates Need To Use Their Cash

Sep 11, 2019
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Politicians need money to run a campaign, but as we know from experience, the candidate with the most money does not always win. So does more money mean more votes? NPR Politics reporter Danielle Kurtzleben teamed up with Cardiff Garcia of NPR's Planet Money.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Have a look at Hillary Clinton, for example. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the groups that supported her outraised Donald Trump and his groups by more than $300 million in the 2016 election. And still, he won. But one big important thing we can say, you do need a certain minimum amount of money to run seriously for president. That's according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of The Center for Responsive Politics.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It's essential, but it's not sufficient on its own. Candidates need to have enough money to get their message out, to pay the staff that will run their campaign, their field offices.

GARCIA: There's also other basic stuff you need to be a competitive candidate, like name recognition. Put ads out there, do a lot of events, and you can get more people to know who you are.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Long story short, according to Sheila, money doesn't buy the message, but it can be a heck of a bullhorn.

KRUMHOLZ: Even if they have good ideas and good charisma, they also need to have that money to be able to get that message out.

GARCIA: Yeah. But wait, because we're focusing a lot on what money buys. But that's a really limited way to look at all this, which brings us to important point No. 2 about campaign fundraising. Money isn't just about buying stuff.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Campaign money has a big signaling effect. When a candidate gets a lot of money, it, first of all, will get some media coverage.

GARCIA: But beyond that, there's another important effect. Money begets more money. It signals to other donors that, yes, I can do this. Yes, I am a safe investment.

KURTZLEBEN: Which means there's also a timing aspect to your political donations. Sheila told me this, and she referenced a popular Democratic fundraising group.

KRUMHOLZ: This is the basis for bundling operations like EMILY's List, which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. That early money helps you raise the dough.

KURTZLEBEN: Whether it's done early or late in the cycle, there's one more point here. Fundraising just costs money, often a lot of money. And that might sound counterintuitive because if I'm Donald Trump, or Elizabeth Warren or whoever, I could just send out an email and let the money roll in because sending an email is free.

GARCIA: Well, that turns out not to be true, though. First of all, you have to buy lists of email addresses, and those can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

KURTZLEBEN: In order to even get onto the stage for those televised debates you may have seen, candidates have to hit a certain polling threshold and get a certain number of donors. So a lot of candidates are reaching out online to their lists saying, listen, just give me $1.

GARCIA: It's this weird situation where a $1 donation is much more valuable than a dollar. One staggering statistic here, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, some Democratic campaigns are spending $35 or more to get just $1 through a Facebook ad.

KURTZLEBEN: The campaigns are making a calculation that being on that stage, being on national television, taking a jab at an opponent that could be played on cable news the next day is worth it. Danielle Kurtzleben.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

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