Got deep pockets? Run for office



In the 19th century, when some senators were chosen by state legislators rather than popularly elected, their deliberative body was known as a ‘millionaire’s club.’

These days, the popular candidate wins the day, but the world of politics—everyone from presidents to senators to governors—might still be known as a kind of millionaires club.

From former Goldman Sachs Chairman Jon Corzine to billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, politics of late has seen a rising number of wealthy candidates enter the fray. And their lack of experience doesn’t seem to make much difference to anybody.

There’s a good reason, too, says Jack Nagel, the Steven F. Goldstone Endowed Term Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences: The instant war chest these kind of candidates provide is very attractive for political parties. “That’s always a big problem for the party—to fund candidates,” Nagel said. “[Having a wealthy candidate] is a big head start.”

Of course, there’s an advantage for these wealthy candidates as well. Though politics is a risky business, candidates with a considerable personal fortune aren’t necessarily taking a fall, financially speaking, if they lose. When Corzine ran for the Senate, he spent more than $62 million of his own money. It was a move that paid off, as he now sits in the Governor’s Office in Trenton, but many other rich candidates haven’t been quite as lucky. Senate hopeful Blair Hull lost in the 2004 primaries to now-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), effectively wasting his $29 million investment, and according to a USA Today article from November of 2004, of the 22 candidates who spent $1 million or more of their own money trying to win their first Congressional bid that year, only one won a seat.

Nagel cites West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller and former Pennsylvania Republican Senator John Heinz as two recent examples of well-funded candidates who ran with very little political experience. Nagel adds he’s unsure if the trend is getting more frequent.

Some of these multimillionaire candidates have cast themselves as independents who’ve spent their careers in another field, set apart from the bickering or corruption in federal, state or local politics. The idea is that these candidates are somehow less corruptible than those individuals who have had a long political career. “If you don’t have any political experience, you might as well make a virtue out of it,” says Nagel.

Sometimes this appeals to voters—and sometimes it doesn’t. “If you show up as a complete ignoramus and are not able to deal with the issues, you’re going to have a problem,” says Nagel.

Obviously other virtues help, too, such as a clear or compelling speaking style or a solid grasp of the issues.

Close to home, Republican Lynn Swann—a former NFL star and political novice who may be most recognizable today as a sideline reporter for ABC Sports college football coverage—is betting he can oust Governor Ed Rendell in November. The question facing Swann is one of credibility, says Nagel.

Will Swann come across as somebody with sufficient knowledge, especially against the politically experienced Rendell, to take the state’s highest office? If so, he might have a fighting chance.

And once in office, Swann would have the—perhaps dubious—advantage of no longer being an “outsider.” “Once they’re an incumbent,” Nagel says, “they’re no longer an outsider.”

Originally published on April 13, 2006