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Money Buys What in Politics?

A lot of talk in American politics is about money. Maybe you think there’s too much money. Maybe too little. Or maybe, money in politics doesn’t matter at all.

Donald Trump is rich, but he’s spending little on his campaign. Jeb Bush raised hundreds of millions of dollars and lost. Hillary Clinton raised lots of money, too, and she’s losing to Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t have much money.

Money doesn’t equal victory in politics. Pretty clear.

But political money does something, or people wouldn’t talk so much about it. What does it do? What can it do?

Most political money is spent on advertising. You raise money for a candidate, and you spend it on advertising. You pay people to create compelling ads. You pay political consultants to decide where to place the ads. Where and when to send the right messages.

But what are you really buying with a political ad?

You’re buying a place in someone’s D-A-D-A process, where the final action is a vote. You’re buying a chance to give a voter data. You’re buying a chance to influence how they analyze the data. You’re trying to change how they will make a decision. How they will vote.

But it’s not working. Largely, because of one man:

Donald Trump.

Trump gets your attention for free. He doesn’t need to buy advertising. And what he says gives you new data, whether you like it or not. What he says influences how you vote, whether you like it or not.

How does Trump do it?

He says outrageous things. He says ridiculous things. He says controversial things. He says funny things. And he says a lot of those kinds of things.

He gets your attention. And the media reports it. Because they know you want to know what Trump will say next.

How did he do this? He’s mocked for being a reality TV star, but the same dynamic happens there. You win or lose based on whether you attract attention. So he had a decade of practice. A decade to see what got people’s attention and what didn’t.

Trump has your attention for free. What costs other candidates millions of dollars to get, he gets for free.

Will it matter? Is Trump using your attention to in a way to get your vote? Scott Adams at the Dilbert blog thinks so. Maybe you don’t.

Whatever you think of Trump, he’s upended the money in politics issue. Because it isn’t really money that matters in politics.

What matters is what political money’s trying to buy: attention and influence.

Sometimes, you get them for free.

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