The total cost of the 2020 election reached $14 billion, the most expensive election in U.S. history.
The response to this is predictable. From ESPN to NPR and local news outlets across the country, the left-leaning media continues to reinforce the false premise that votes are bought and sold — whoever spends the most, wins the most.
Of course, the same liberal media was all too willing to accept (and give) high-dollar donations, even so-called dark money, to defeat President Trump. Joe Biden outraised and outspent Trump by more than $400 million, with the Biden campaign and aligned groups flooding the political system with over $1.1 billion in political spending.
But that eye-popping total isn’t the real takeaway from 2020 political spending. This is: Once again, the public proved that money does not buy elections. Outraising and outspending your opponent does not buy votes or guarantee victory.
In Maine, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon more than doubled Republican Sen. Susan Collins’s overall fundraising numbers, raising over $63 million since launching her campaign last summer. Collins, on the other hand, raised about $25 million over the last two years. Who won? Collins defeated Gideon by 9 points despite trailing in polls leading up to Election Day.
In South Carolina, the third quarter saw Democrat Jaime Harrison raise more than any other Senate candidate in U.S. history in his attempt to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham. On the eve of the election, Harrison had poured more than $52 million into TV and digital ads, compared to Graham’s $19 million. Graham won by double digits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who raised $30 million less than his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, still won by 20 points. McConnell, long the Senate’s fiercest defender of political speech, would later dismiss a question about voter fraud in his race by opining, “I don’t know — at the risk of bragging, it wasn’t very close.”
Then there’s Mike Bloomberg, who plowed $1 billion of his own money into a presidential primary campaign that only won American Samoa and never cracked 10% nationally. The 2020 election proved, unequivocally, that there is no amount of money you can spend to get voters to vote for someone they don’t want to vote for.
It’s a familiar lesson: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton each had the then-largest super PACs ever supporting them, only to suffer defeat. Clinton dramatically outspent Trump in 2016 and still lost.
People think for themselves. No fundraising or spending edge, even in the tens or hundreds of millions, could offset the will of the people in states such as Kentucky, Maine, and South Carolina. Not even $1 billion was enough to make Bloomberg palatable to Democratic primary voters, let alone the general public. Biden didn’t win because he outspent Trump — his victory is a product of the immortal will of the voters.
Of course, money is still important. Too much money never lost an election, whereas a lack of money surely has. Money is the mother’s milk of politics, as California Democrat Jesse Unruh famously put it, and candidates will always need enough to convey their ideas effectively. But the most money does not necessarily win.
Nevertheless, “campaign finance reform” has become such a normalized talking point that voters are led to believe our elections are rigged. The reality is that campaign finance reform only ever serves to benefit entrenched incumbents and well-established special interests. Bradley Blakeman, a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, recently lamented that outsiders have “undue or unfair amounts of influence on elections.” That perspective on power, reserved for political elites, is precisely the problem with and often the product of campaign finance reform.
As long as the Washington swamp oozes its way into our homes, businesses, and schools, our entire lives, the “outsider” public will inevitably push back against insider elites such as Blakeman. If you truly want money out of politics, get politics out of people’s lives, and the money will evaporate with it.
Ultimately, the people with the most influence on elections are the voters themselves. We, the people, make our own choices and pick our own winners. If you think people are so stupid they’ll just vote for whoever ran the most ads, then maybe democracy isn’t for you.
But if you value the will of the voter, then listen to what the money is really saying to candidates: Stay out of our lives.
Dan Backer is a veteran campaign counsel, having served more than 100 candidates, PACs, and political organizations. He is a founding attorney of political.law PPLC, a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Virginia.