Money & Elections

Campaign spending varies greatly across different positions within an election and between election cycles.  Nevertheless, there are some general trends that we can identify in campaign spending:

  • campaign fundraising and spending for the major parties significantly outpaces that of minor parties
  • candidates tend to spend more money on campaigns for offices associated with “swing” districts in which there is a good chance that either major party could win the election
  • competitive races are often linked to higher campaign spending than open races
  • campaign spending for elections in urban areas tends to outpace that for elections in rural areas
  • at-large elections tend to cost more than single-member district elections; a candidate who is interested in running for an at-large state office (such as an office in the plural executive) needs to raise at least $20 million, whereas a candidate running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives may only need to raise $400,000- $550,000 (Samuels, 2017)
  • federal elections cost more than most state elections
  • the cost of campaigns continues to rise

Money is necessary to pay for campaign staff, political consultants, and advertising.  Most campaign spending is on advertisements in media (including traditional media – TV, newspapers, etc. – and, more recently, social media).  As explained in the video below, however, what kind of spending is allowed has expanded to include political activities not directly related to a candidate’s election or re-election.

Source of Campaign Financing

Campaign financing includes:

  • hard money, or campaign funds donated directly to candidates, which are limited by federal election laws; and
  • soft money, or unregulated campaign contributions by individuals, groups, or parties that promote general election activities but do not directly support individual candidates

There are very few sources of campaign contributions in Texas elections.  Sources for hard money donations in most state and local races are relatively limited: for example, in 2002, 48 wealthy families supplied more than half of the hard money contributions raised by the Republican candidates for state office.  Soft money campaign spending in Texas comes from various interest groups, including corporations, professional associations, and political action committees (PACs), which are organizations that raise money privately to spend on influencing campaigns.  Candidates can also fund their campaigns with their own wealth.

Campaign Finance Laws

Texas state election laws require full disclosure of “significant contributions” (i.e., contributions exceeding $50).  When it comes to limitations on campaign contributions or campaign expenditures, however, the law is inconsistent:

  • no limits are placed on campaign contributions or campaign expenditures for candidates for executive or legislative office
  • individual donations in judicial campaigns are limited to $5,000 or less (based on the size of the jurisdiction); while there are no mandatory spending limits for judicial campaigns, state law does create a system of voluntary spending limits that judicial candidates can agree to accept

Does Money Talk?

Campaign donations and spending can play a role in electoral outcomes.  The largest single item in any campaign budget is media; the more money a campaign has at its disposal, the more it can engage in outreach to attract and mobilize voters in support of the candidate.  With that being said, the relationship between electoral success and money is complex, and more money does not guarantee electoral success:

“Some of the most expensive campaigns were run by people you have probably never heard of. In some cases, a candidate entering a general election contest with better name recognition or the right party affiliation for that district doesn’t have to spend much money at all.” (Samuels, 2017)

Research has indicated that when it comes to campaign spending, the law of diminishing returns may apply.

One area in which money does tend to effectively talk is policymaking.  Interest groups, political action committees, corporations, and individuals may donate to a candidate in response to that candidate’s view of certain public policy issues and/or support of certain public policy solutions.  These donations, in turn, can result in increased access to that official (if elected), which can increase the role of lobbying in policymaking.

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