Meg Whitman Smashes Record for Self-Financed Campaign in California

History shows most candidates who finance own campaigns lose.

September 15, 2010, 5:26 PM

Sept. 16, 2010— -- California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has shattered the record for personal spending by any candidate in any American election in history. The former eBay chief executive has donated another $15 million of her own fortune to her campaign treasury, bringing her total so far to $119 million.

That surpasses the $109 million spent by New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg on his reelection campaign in 2009.

Whitman has used much of her money on a torrent of advertising, much of it negative, in her race with former Governor Jerry Brown. Recent polls show the race is tight.

But history shows it may be hard for Whitman. Most candidates who invest their own fortunes in campaigns find that money really doesn't buy happiness, much less a seat in government.

Just ask Ross Perot, who spent $63.5 million for his 1992 independent presidential campaign. He ended up with just 19 percent of the vote. He spent another $11.5 million in 1996 with an even worse result.

Or ask Steve Forbes, who sits atop the Forbes Inc. publishing empire. He spent $77 million out of his own pocket for two failed presidential runs.

"At the federal level … we found that most of the time, people who pour millions of their own dollars into their own campaigns end up losing," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign finance records submitted to the Federal Election Commission.

In fact, since 2002, the four candidates who spent the most of their own money for Congressional campaigns were all defeated. The biggest loser of them all: Blair Hull, who spent nearly $29 million of his own money to run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Illinois in 2004, only to drop out after news reports that he had been charged with spouse abuse. That left the field wide open to a little-known state senator named Barack Obama.

The same trend holds true for candidates for statewide office. According to a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, only 11 per cent of self-financed candidates won their races in the last nine years. It is true regardless of party.

And running for governor as a wealthy independent doesn't work either. B. Thomas Galisano, who ran for governor of New York in 2002, leads the list of the top nine candidates who tried to finance their own statewide campaigns. He spent $75 million of his own money. He got only 633,000 votes in a losing effort. That's an average of $118 per vote.

Candidates and Their Money Soon Parted

Levinthal says incumbency is the biggest hurdle that any challenger, regardless of wealth, has to overcome to get into office. "Most of these self-financing candidates are challengers, and they find themselves running up against well-established incumbents who many times are popular candidates who are simply too strong to overcome in the end," he said.

Denise Roth-Barber, the research director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said wealthy candidates who don't take outside contributions may find it hard to connect with voters. "Once a person donates to a campaign, they have a vested interest in that candidate, and therefore have more reason to actually vote for that person."

Having deep pockets does not, in and of itself, instill confidence among voters, she said.

"Meg Whitman may be successful in the business world," said Roth-Barber. "But voters are not always clear this person can run government. And there perhaps is an inherent mistrust of people who have a lot of money."

Levinthal said, "Money will buy you a lot of TV ads and handbills and pay staff salaries, but if you are unable to connect with an electorate, then you may find yourself on the wrong end of the results."

And that may be even more true, he said, in a year when voters say the economy is the number one, two, and three issue on their minds. They may have trouble identifying with someone who can spend so much of their own money on a political campaign.

"If you're working two jobs for half the money you used to make because you are unemployed or just trying to put food on the table, and you see a guy with millions of dollars to extinguish on a political race, you may not feel as connected with that person as someone with a very populist message, running with a background similar to yours," Levinthal said.

Marilyn Young contributed to this story

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