Apr 16, 2019

Money doesn't matter in modern presidential races

Photo: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Having lots of money at the beginning of a presidential race — or even at the end — matters much less than it did in the past.

Be smart: President Trump probably could have won in 2016 with no money. You can’t put a price tag on free Twitter coverage, free cable coverage and all the stories flowing from both.

Data: Federal Election Commission; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

The big picture: Huge out-of-the-gate dollar advantages for Hillary Clinton in 2008 or Jeb Bush in 2016 didn't help them over the finish line.

  • There's a long history of rich people trying and failing to win elections with money: Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, etc.
  • Such presidential follies go all the way back to Ross Perot in 1992, and are likely to be continued by Howard Schultz this cycle. David Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice president in 1980!

The bottom line: In many ways, the money primary is not important because money is important, but rather because it helps determine which candidates are taken seriously by the media.

A bare minimum of money is necessary to staff a campaign, keep it on the road, and keep its vital functions on track — although Trump might have effectively disproved even that. Beyond that bare minimum, money tends to go in two directions: consultants and TV ads.

  • Candidates still spend the lion's share of their funds on TV ads, because that's where the boomers are, and boomers are very likely to vote. But TV ads are hard to target effectively, and they always come at a premium: Many swing-state local TV stations are happy to lose money three years in a row, just because they know that presidential election campaigns will be like money from helicopters.
  • TV ads have never been less effective in terms of persuading the electorate whom they should vote for — because the electorate has never been this polarized.

In 2020, earned (free) media will, once again, be of paramount importance. And this time, the earned media that matters will increasingly be social — especially Facebook and Instagram — rather than TV.

  • While some people are persuaded by TV, many more are persuaded by their friends and peers.

Go deeper ... 2020 presidential election: Track every candidate's Q1 fundraising totals

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