If you open this week’s Economist, you will find what is becoming a familiar line about spending on US elections:

The election cycle that has just limped to its exhausted conclusion cost around $6 billion—a new record, as in every new presidential cycle. But when you consider that Americans were electing on November 6th not just the president but 435 congressmen and 33 senators in a vast country of 330m people, where electioneering is primarily conducted by paid television advertisements, the figure may not seem quite so high. Americans spend more than that every year on potato crisps.(emphasis added)

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this type of argument (see the chewing gum version here), and indeed I heard variants on it a number of times at a conference I just participated in on assessing the results of the US presidential election. I’ve even used versions of this line myself with my students.

That being said, I think it is time to stop saying it. While it may be true that Americans spend more on potato chips than political campaigns, there are of course several important differences worth considering here:

  • Potatoes do not have to spend time or effort soliciting donations so they can be converted to potato chips.
  • Once purchased, people rarely lobby potato chips for favors in enacting preferential legislation.
  • Potato chips rarely, if ever, face trade-offs between trying to please the individual who bought them, their constituents, and the country at large. They can just simply be oh-so-tasty.
  • Anyone in the United States is allowed to buy potato chips, not just citizens.  Indeed, even children and foreigners can purchase potato chips.
  • Potato chips are accessible to all citizens, rich and poor alike (with the possible exception of people dealing with cholesterol issues).
  • Sheldon Adelson doesn’t purchase $15 million worth of potato chips for his own personal use (at least I hope not).

I make these points a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the issue is a real one.  I think we are at a point where this technique of comparing campaign funding to some simple consumer good is developing as a short-hand for dismissing concerns with the current system of campaign finance in the United States.  Regardless of what one thinks is the ideal system of campaign funding, suggesting that donating money to a politician is the same thing as buying a bag of chips is not the best way to go about addressing the issue.

Thus it would be Wise to start to Chip away at an over-Baked analogy that should be covered with a Cape (Cod), stuffed in a Kettle, and Lay(d) to rest before the discussion turns Salty and feathers get Ruffle(d) in what ought to be a serious discussion.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.