Congressional campaign spending and electoral success

Date of Completion

January 2001


Business Administration, Marketing|Political Science, General




The major purpose of this study was to test the notion that spending large sums of money on broadcast media advertising significantly aids candidates for Congress in gaining votes. Heretofore, scholars have been divided on the question of whether or not spending helps to account for incumbent electoral success. ^ This study differs from others in the Congressional campaign spending literature. Most previous studies have used aggregate data with the Congressional district as the unit of analysis. That is, they correlated the amount of money spent by the candidate in the district as a whole with the proportion of district vote received. This dissertation investigates the impact of campaign spending on voters' attitudes and perceptions of candidates at the individual level of analysis using survey data. The principle data sources for this dissertation were: campaign spending data from the Federal Election Commission, and the 1986 and 1990 nationwide sample surveys from the National Election Studies at the University of Michigan. ^ In this dissertation two possible models were tested to explain the very high reelection rates of members of Congress. The Money Model hypothesized that money significantly helps win votes through costly television advertising. Also tested was the Incumbency Model. This model hypothesized that inherent structural advantages of the incumbent—local newspaper coverage, free mailing privileges, and personal contact with constituents through casework, talks at meetings, etc.—were the key to success for incumbents. ^ The evidence in this dissertation shows that the Money Model accurately depicts the process by which challengers win votes, but does not apply to incumbents. The data indicate that voters learn about and form very favorable opinions of incumbents through personal contact, newspapers, and mail—with personal contact having the greatest effect. Contrary to the Money Model, voters learn little about incumbents from television exposure. ^ Incumbents enjoy success at the polls not only because they are generally known and well liked, but because challengers are largely unknown unless they spend over $400,000. Thus, while high levels of campaign spending do not help incumbents, such spending is critical for challengers if they are to gain recognition. ^