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Money Can't Buy Elections—Just Ask Wealthy Candidates

The money men and women running for office are largely self-made, entrepreneurs, or leaders of explosive growth companies

Being a great business person doesn't necessarily mean you're a great candidate

It turns out you can’t buy an election in this country.

You sure can try, though.

Digital Vision | Getty Images

According to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, self-funded candidates—those who are pouring their own personal fortunes into their campaigns rather than raising the bulk of their campaign cash from political donors—aren’t faring well in the hotly-contested 2010 election cycle.

In fact, two of the top five self-funded candidates of 2010 have already lost—going down to defeat in party primaries after spending millions of their own dollars on the race. The other three on the top-five list of biggest self funders are trailing their less-wealthy rivals in the polls with just a few weeks left in the campaign.

That’s because super-rich self-funded candidates are often political neophytes battling against entrenched incumbents or political veterans with an established get-out-the-vote machine. Much of the money the rich candidates pour into their races goes into building a political operation from scratch, something their rivals don’t always have to do.

And the public can react negatively to a super-wealthy candidate, particularly during hard times.

Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report
Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report

“We’ve seen some of the biggest numbers that we’ve ever seen this year of people financing their own campaigns in a year when the economy is utterly awful,” said Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “It definitely stands in contrast when you have candidates pumping this amount of money into a political race. A lot of people would love to have $60 million to spend—and they wouldn’t spend it on a political race.”

One veteran Republican operative told me, “the money helps, but you have to be a good candidate. That’s always the bottom line.”

The biggest self-funder of all time, ex eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a Republican who is running for governor of California, is behind by six points in Real Clear Politics campaign poll averages, despite spending $119 million of her own money in the race so far.

Whitman’s fortunes have been sagging since she hit a problem common to the wealthy—a household employee said she’d worked for the hard charging CEO while she was an undocumented immigrant. Since late September, Whitman has trailed her Democratic rival, former California governor Jerry Brown.

In Connecticut, Republican wrestling entrepreneur Linda McMahon made progress in the polls all year against Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, but he has pulled ahead in recent days to a more-than-nine-point lead in the polls, despite allegations that he was less than truthful about his Vietnam-era military service.

McMahon, the former CEO of the WWE professional wrestling league, has spent $22.1 million of her family’s personal fortune on the campaign so far, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. That hasn’t been enough to give her a stranglehold on the lead.

Meanwhile, Florida Democrat Jeff Greene’s campaign for his party’s Senate nomination in Florida ran into problems (of a kind that less-wealthy candidates don’t face) when allegations hit the press of hard-partying days with stars like Lindsay Lohan and Mike Tyson on Green’s luxury yacht Summerwind. The business and real estate mogul lost the nomination.

And take a look at Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, who made his money as a managing director of Bain Capital. “Without his $400 million fortune, Pagliuca’s campaign would be a joke,” wrote a Boston Globe columnist. Pagliuca spent $7.6 million of that fortune in the race for the Democratic nomination to succeed the late Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Senate, and lost his party’s nomination.

What’s interesting about the money men and women who are running for office this year is that they’re largely self-made people, entrepreneurs, or leaders of explosive growth companies. There’s not an inherited-wealth dilettante on the top five list of biggest self funders. That’s because the self made rich have all the confidence in the world, a track record of success and a willingness to deplete a war chest that they filled in the first place.

But what they’re finding is that being a great business person doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great candidate.

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