Why Campaign Finance Reform Never Works

Shays-Meehan would limit spending in House races to $600,000. In 1996, every House incumbent who spent less than $500,000 won compared with only 3% of challengers who spent that little. However challengers who spent between $500,000 and $1 million won 40% of the time while challengers who spent more than $1 million won five of six races. The McCain-Feingold bill, which sets spending limits in Senate races, would yield similar results. In both 1994 and 1996, every challenger who spent less than its limits lost, but every incumbent who did so won.

This anecdotal evidence supports comprehensive statistical analysis: The key spending variable is not incumbent spending, or the ratio of incumbent to challenger spending, but the absolute level of challenger spending. Incumbents begin races with high name and issue recognition, so added spending doesn’t help them much. Challengers, however, need to build that recognition. Once a challenger has spent enough to achieve similar name and issue recognition, campaign spending limits kick in. Meanwhile the incumbent is just beginning to spend. In other words, just as a challenger starts to become competitive, campaign spending limits choke off political competition.