Money Can't Buy Me Votes

By Joshua Townsley

In light of a recent story claiming the Tories were attempting to ‘buy’ the general election, and a rather important date in the campaign organiser’s diary approaching, it seems timely to discuss the relationship between campaign spending and votes. Money doesn’t always equal votes. It sounds simple, but there are a number of reasons why using the amount a candidate spends as a measurement of how well he or she is campaigning is inherently flawed.

Money is certainly helpful when it comes to campaigning. It facilitates the hiring of agents and organisers, the printing of leaflets, renting a local party office, and paying for the campaign's IT database.

But spending doesn’t capture everything. For instance, spending cannot measure the many hours of unpaid work that takes place in the form of canvassing, the preparation and delivery of leaflets, or entering canvassing returns into the party software, upon which a campaign relies. Spending does not buy you a dedicated and motivated group of volunteers, and it is these volunteers who win elections.
This is especially worth noting when you consider that the single most effective technique a campaign can use to secure that cross in the box on election day has very little to do with money. An in-person conversation with a voter carried out by a volunteer on a cold and dreary day in February has a far greater effect on securing that person’s vote than the expensive piece of glossy direct mail that landed in their post box that morning. There is a long list of academic research that shows personal canvassing has a greater effect on turnout than impersonal methods such as leafleting (Gerber & Green, 2000a; 2000b; 2001; 2004; 2005; Arceneaux, 2006). While you can buy expensive direct mailouts, you cannot buy the personal touch. The Conservatives will have a greater ‘war chest’ than Labour at the next general election, which certainly helps, but it does not guarantee electoral success.
The second justification explored in this article was the fact that a very important date in the campaign organiser’s diary is approaching. The 19th of December marks the day that the official ‘Long Campaign’ begins. This is important because it represents the start of the period in which the amount a candidate spends on campaigning falls under strict limits. Likewise, the ‘Short Campaign’ that begins in March has even stricter limitations on spending. The money spent during this period is reported to the Electoral Commission, which likewise publishes it on their website. Using this data as a measurement of campaign intensity is intuitive, but not without problems. The reality is that a huge amount of campaign activity has already occurred and is therefore not counted for in the reported campaign spending. This is especially the case in the seats that will determine the outcome of the general election. The UK’s most marginal constituencies will experience campaigning almost non-stop all year round. The majority of this activity will not be picked up by spending reported to the Electoral Commission between now and polling day. Therefore, the use of campaign spending as a barometer of campaign intensity is probably least relevant in the seats that matter most.

Joshua Townsley is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent, specialising in political campaigning and electoral politics. For more information, see here:

For a summary of experimental methods and other research on campaign modes and their relative effectiveness, Yale University's Get Out The Vote site is worth a visit.


Arceneaux, K. (2006). I'm Asking for Your Support: The Effect of Personally Delivered Campaign Messages on Voting Decisions and Opinion Formation. Unpublished Manuscript. Department of Political Science. Temple University.

Gerber, A, Green, D. (2000a). The Effects of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, and Direct Mail on Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment. The American Political Science Review, 94(3), pp. 653-663.

Gerber, A, Green, D. (2000b). The Effect of a Nonpartisan Get-Out-The-Vote Drive: An Experimental Study of Leafleting. Journal of Politics, 62(3), pp. 846–857.

Gerber, A, Green, D. (2001). Do Phone Calls Increase Voter Turnout?: A Field Experiment. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65, pp. 75–85.

Gerber, A. Green, D. (2004). Get Out the Vote! A Guide for Candidates and Campaigns. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Gerber, A, Green, D, Iyengar, S, Jackman, S. (2005). Using Information Technology to Mobilize Young Voters: A Field Experiment. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omniment. The American Political Science Review, 94(3), pp. 653-663.

Copyright © 2015 The Ballot Box
Template By Herdiansyah Hamzah | Design By Jabin Law