One area where there’s a large disconnect between what political scientists know and what the public believes is campaign spending. Political scientists have accrued a great many studies showing that spending just isn’t terribly influential in elections. Much of the public, conversely, is convinced that money is a grave threat to the political system, and that someone with enough cash and fame can simply buy high political office. Donald Trump is about to prove them wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong: Saying that money isn’t that influential isn’t the same as saying it’s irrelevant. Money can be important in the sense that it conveys legitimacy. A candidate who can’t raise money is going to have a hard time getting people to endorse her, no less vote for her. And at least below some threshold, you really do need money to be able to put together a credible campaign. Setting up field offices, hiring staff, printing lawn signs, running ads, and traveling to rallies all require money, and the candidate who doesn’t have enough to do those basic things simply isn’t going to register in voters’ minds.
Beyond that, though, general elections are frequently lost by the bigger spender. And to the extent that the bigger spender wins a race, it’s often because people donate to the person they think will win, rather than the donations turning a candidate into a winner. Above a certain level of spending, you’re just not buying much more. Even massively outspending an opponent only conveys a modest advantage at the polls.
Money can help a bit more in primaries and caucuses, but only so much. Studies have shown that, at least in presidential elections, endorsements by politicians are a far better predictor of who will win the nomination than fundraising.
Here’s where Donald Trump comes in. By virtue of his celebrity, he can certainly attract media attention. (Indeed, he got far more attention for his announcement last week than did Jeb Bush, who is widely seen as one of the more likely candidates for the nomination.) And by virtue of his substantial personal fortune, he can buy all the things a presidential candidate needs—offices, staffers, advertising, planes, etc. He could literally spend a billion dollars on winning the Republican presidential nomination and still be a billionaire when it’s over.
But here’s the catch: He won’t win it. He’ll never get close to the Republican nomination, for the very simple reason that party insiders despise him. They think him a clown and an embarrassment to the party. You can get a great sense of this from Kevin Williamson’s magnificently titled National Review piece “Witless Ape Rides Escalator.” Trump will likely receive the endorsements of zero governors, senators, and House members, and probably not many more state legislators. Why? Because he’s demonstrated no serious commitment to any party issue or cause other than a hatred of President Obama, because his professional accomplishments consist of building casinos and making money between bankruptcies and starring in a reality TV show in which he fires people with his children, and because he’s, well, a clown.
Reformers often express concern that a sufficiently rich and famous person could buy his way into office. Trump will be putting this theory to the test over the next six months. He’s got more money and greater name recognition than anyone else running for the Republican nomination. If those things are enough, he should do well in this process. But they’re not, and he won’t.
This would be a good time, by the way, to give thanks for parties and the gatekeeping function they serve. The main reason Trump won’t come within a mile of the White House is because you need the backing of a major party to do that. The Republicans won’t back him because they think he’d be bad for them—and they’re right.