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Nov. 2, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 5

Asst. Prof. Jennifer Steen (Political Science): "Spending is only helpful and this is true in the private sector as well if the product you are selling is appealing."

Political Capital

Personal wealth does not guarantee campaign success, says Steen

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

Jesus said money won't buy access to Heaven and the Beatles said it can't buy love.

Turns out it's not always great at buying public office, either, according to Asst. Prof. Jennifer Steen (Political Science).

In her new book, Self-Financed Candidates in Congressional Elections, Steen examines the spotty record of wealthy politicians in US House and Senate elections between 1992 and 2000. The good news for American democracy, she says, is that personal wealth does not constitute an overwhelming political advantage and isn't a good barometer for predicting self-financed candidates' success on Election Day.

Steen's book uses statistical analysis spliced with real-world anecdotes to show that while self-financing matters somewhat, in the end it's only as good as the product being marketed.

"It depends on who is doing the spending," she says. "Spending is only helpful - and this is true in the private sector as well - if the product you are selling is appealing."

The analogy she likes to use is New Coke, the Coca-Cola Company's ill-fated launch of a replacement to its popular soft drink in the mid-1980s. Coca-Cola spent millions of dollars on promoting the new soft drink, only to be forced to pull it because of a poor reception by consumers.

"That's a big problem that a lot of these self-financers have - their product is not very appealing, which is to say they're not very appealing," says Steen, a former California political campaign manager now in her seventh year on the faculty at Boston College.

Although the book is an academic work, it has policy implications and has been consulted by policy makers. Steen recently served as an expert witness for the defense in the case of a self-financed congressional candidate from upstate New York who sued the Federal Election Commission over a provision in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act.

In addition to looking at conditions that help spawn self-financed candidacies, Steen's book shows how millionaire candidates willing to draw down their own cash reserves can scare other candidates out of the field.

"Self-financed candidates have horrible track records in both primaries and in general elections, but their track records in primaries would be even worse if they didn't have this chilling effect on competition," she says.

Steen cites the example of New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, who made a brief run for the US Senate in 2000 but decided to pull out in the face of former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine's vast wealth. Corzine went on to win the Senate seat and now serves as governor of New Jersey.

"Pallone thought he could win the Democratic nomination but decided he had better things to do with his time than take on somebody capable of spending upwards of $60 million on his own candidacy," she says.

Steen also argues in the book that when it comes to deciding election outcomes, fundraising is much more productive than self-financing.

"Part of it has to do with the fact that fundraising is political activity...The fact that you can go out and get people to support you shows that you have some political skill and is an indicator of fundamental appeal," she says.

"It also adds value to your campaign. Consider the difference between writing yourself a check for $1,000,000 and getting 1,000 people to write you a check for $1,000 each."

Steen is reluctant to make predictions about the overall outcome of this Tuesday's mid-term elections but thinks 2006 will be a fairly typical year for self-financed candidates, including the five big-spenders running for the Senate from Florida, Vermont, Washington, Nebraska and Arizona.

"They're not going to do well as a group on Election Day," Steen says of the five. "Maybe one can pull it off but I'll be surprised if two of those people win."

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