Money can buy all sorts of things: fame, prestige, a 145-foot yacht, to cite just a few. But, there's a limit to what personal wealth can do come Election Day, as past self-funded political candidates have learned—and as two rich candidates in the Sunshine State may find on Tuesday.
Launching political campaigns with commanding advertising campaigns, two candidates have largely paid their own way in Florida's competitive statewide primaries: millionaire former hospital executive Rick Scott in the GOP gubernatorial race and billionaire real estate developer Jeff Greene in the Democratic Senate race. In each case, the deep-pocketed political novices hope to defeat their party-backed foes. Scott is taking on Florida's Attorney General Bill McCollum and Greene is fighting U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.[See who is giving money to the Meek campaign.]
Their money has bought the rich newcomers visibility, but will it buy them political success? Not necessarily. Experts say that, even in a year when political outsiders across the nation seem to have more of an advantage than usual, these previously unrecognizable self-funders may find it difficult to build enough voter enthusiasm to achieve victory in November.
Regardless of their views on government spending—a top campaign issue this year—wealthy candidates around the country have had no problem spending large amounts of their own money in pursuit of their ambitions. About two dozen congressional candidates have contributed or loaned more than $1 million to their own campaigns, and even that's just a fraction of what some of the top self-funders have spent. For example, Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay competing with former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to become California governor, reported this month that she has given her campaign more than $100 million to date, the bulk spent before the state's primary. Also in California, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has provided $5.5 million to win her own primary and to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for her Senate seat. In Connecticut, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon won her Senate primary earlier this month, spending over $22 million out of pocket on campaign efforts.
Despite the apparent momentum behind these high-profile self-funders, recent history is against them. With the exception of a few notable successes, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, self-funded politicians on a whole tend to do worse at the polls than those who build their campaigns primarily through outreach to constituencies. A study by Anne Bauer at the National Institute on Money in State Politics identified 6,171 self-funders who ran for state-level offices between 2000 and 2009, accounting for 8 percent of the total of more than 75,000 candidates. Only about 1 in 10 self-funders won. The overall trend was consistent for Democrats and Republicans.
Among the 10 top self-funders cited in the report—who chipped in $10 million to $74 million of their own or family money—only three won: Jon Corzine for New Jersey governor in 2005 ($42 million), David Dewhurst for Texas lieutenant governor in 2002 ($24 million), and Steve Poizner for California Insurance Commissioner in 2006 ($14 million). Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thinks the current political atmosphere will not increase the odds for self-funders this time around. "I see self-funders doing as badly as they usually do," he says.
November's general elections will be the final test for these candidates, but the Florida primary could be telling. According to political science professor Daniel Smith, the director of the University of Florida's Political Campaigning Program, Floridians aren't used to seeing millionaires or, in the case of Jeff Greene, billionaires, putting up millions of their own dollars in a bid for a statewide elected office. So far, Scott—who has already challenged the state's $24.9 million campaign spending cap, overturning it in an appeals court in late July—has loaned himself nearly $27 million as he goes up against McCollum. Greene has loaned his campaign $14.4 million to date.