It is impossible to discuss a political campaign without addressing campaign finances and the role it plays. In Jeffrey C. Alexander’s book The Performance of Politics, he argues that although money is important to political campaigns, it does not ensure symbolic and organizational power for a candidate. It is not the money itself that contributes to the success of a campaign, but rather the way in which a campaign utilizes the tools that money allows the campaign to access. According to this logic, a campaign could have an enormous monetary advantage over a competitor, but if it does use that money as a means to create and distribute a candidate as a compelling symbol, they will not be successful. Throughout Alexander’s book he emphasizes that success for a political campaign is achieved by making a candidate out to be “civil” to the public, generating trust and respect. The idea that a candidate with a significant financial disadvantage, even if he or she is made out to be more civil than their opponent, wins an election still seems like an unlikely occurrence. However, in June of 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader and incumbent, Eric Cantor, lost his primary to candidate with far less money and experience. Eric Cantor had $5.4 million in his arsenal to spend on his primary campaign. His opponent, Dave Brat, raised under $300,000. This example goes to show that Alexander’s argument is extremely valid and relevant.
Cantor spent $1 million on television ads in the week leading up to the election alone where he labeled his opponent as a “liberal college professor.” Instead of making himself look more civil and polluting his opponent, these ads had the opposite effect. Cantor also got into arguments with conservative activists during the campaign, displeasing the grassroots. While Cantor was labeling Brat, Brat was labeling Cantor as well. However, it was in a less high profile way that made Brat appear more civil. Brat often pointed out to the electorate that Cantor was no longer connected to his constituents. Cantor was not seen as accessible to the voters in his district and as someone who spent a lot of time fundraising for the Republican Party, rather than someone working for his district. This was further exemplified to the voters when Cantor spent Election Day in Washington D.C., not back in his district. CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash summed up the way Cantor was viewed by his constituents in a quote, “He embodied — from many of their perspectives — sort of the arrogance of power. That I think has a lot to do with it. And along those lines … he didn’t tend to the district.”
In order to tie Brat’s victory to Alexander’s argument, one must look at another possible factor that could have contributed to Cantor’s loss. Could it be that voter turnout was to blame? According to an article in the Washington Post, the answer is no. Voter turnout in Cantor’s Virginia district was higher than any other recent congressional primary in the state (in both vote total and turnout percentage).
This example fits Alexander’s argument perfectly. Cantor had all the resources in the world, but that did not ensure his victory. Money in campaigns is an extremely important resource, but it does not automatically give a candidate symbolic or organizational power.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print