Everyone and their crazy business-magnate uncle is jumping onto the narrative that Sheldon Adelson and other Super-PAC magnates wasted their money because Romney lost the election. Maybe they did! But here’s five reasons you might want to be skeptical:
1. Winning isn’t everything. Nor is it the only thing. When you spend tens of millions of dollars trying to influence an election, you obviously want your preferred candidate to win. But the binary outcome of the election isn’t the only thing you can, or want, to influence. Your money is also going to affect: the policy issues your candidate raises, the positions on those policies that he introduces into the discourse, what issues he chooses to attack his opponent on, the way the media frames these debates, and so on and so forth. If Sheldon Adelson’s goal was to make sure neither candidate questioned the use of drones or backed the Colorado pot initiative, well, mission accomplished. It’s not like the end goal here is to get a man into the office; the goal is ultimately to influence policy.
2. Marginal effects. If I told you we could increase your candidates’ national vote share by 5% for $100 million dollars, you’d probably say that’s a pretty good return on investment. Whether that 5% gets your candidate over the top by moving him from 46% to 51% , or isn’t quite enough and only gets him from 42% to 47% has no bearing on the bottom line that $20 million can buy a 1% swing in national vote-share. You can’t control other variables that affect the election, so why worry about them? If I bought you a baseball bat that automatically raised your on-base percentage by 20 points, we would never say I wasted my money if you went 0 for 4 the first day you used it. In the long run, your OBP is going up, and we’re scoring more runs.
3. Expected value. Similar to marginal effects. Say I gave you the chance, for $1000, to flip a magic coin I have. If it comes up heads, you get to be President. If it’s tails, you get nothing. You give me the grand, flip, and it comes up tails. Did you waste your money? Of course not. You had a 50% chance of being President! And so it goes with the Super-PACers. For $100 million (or whatever), Sheldon Adelson potentially bought himself a 50% chance (or whatever) of being really influential in a presidential administration. If he estimated that a 50% chance of that kind of influence was worth more than the money he spent, well, that’s just good investing. Note also that the value of such potential influence is highly subjective.
4. The meta game. The world of politics does not end with this election. It’s a repeated game, and the Super-PAC mega-donors are now known to be powerful political players. All candidates — in both parties, up for election or not —- now know that vast sums of money may be spent to help them, or to defeat them. That threat will give the Super-PACers potential influence even if they never spend another penny. The millions spent this fall are going to influence political choices for years, through the implicit threat of future spending.
5. You don’t have complete information. Not only do you not know the motivations of the Super-PAC mega-donors — one man’s waste of money is another man’s treasured memory of being a big shot player in a national election and the potential influence associated with it — but you also don’t know the policy concessions they may have won from either or both of the parties or other candidates or political players. And, as mentioned above, the effects of the money may reverberate for a good long while. More unknowns.
None of this is to say the money wasn’t wasted. It might very well have been! But that’s both an objective claim — if we define it more precisely and specify some parameters — but also a subjective claim resting on a set of value judgements about money and politics. It might be possible to subjectively declare the money a waste. But to categorically declare the money objectively wasted, at this point, is not an obviously supportable proposition. In some pedantic sense, every penny spent on every losing campaign is inherently “wasted.” But that’s not only intuitively wrong, it’s a quite myopic view of electoral democratic politics.