So what's an independent to do?
During a chat with BBC World Service about my attempts at Congress in 2012 and 2014, broadcaster Linda Yueh asked something to the effect of, "Can an independent win? Can money overcome party affiliation?" I never quite thought of it that way partly because I financed my campaigns primarily out of my own meager resources. But the questions got me thinking.
In general, I think the importance of money in elections is overstated. Is money an influence? Absolutely – I'm not naive. I may be splitting hairs here but there's a difference between absolute importance and relative influence. People with money get heard and the electorate gets muffled. But it's not that you can "buy" an election: moneyed newcomers with no brand recognition will lose.
There are factors other than money that go into winning an election. I'm no political scientist and I don't know their relative weights but here goes ...
Familiarity: The "devil you know" vote (Short-to-medium-term advantage)
The incumbent candidate will always get a longer look than a newcomer, and a known novice will always get a longer look than an unknown novice. It's human nature to seek familiarity.
Gerrymandering: The "entrenched party" vote (Medium-term advantage)
The incumbent and the incumbent's party will influence redistricting after each decennial census; that's just the way it is without a nonpartisan commission. (Notice I didn't say bipartisan.) Term limits have no influence on outcomes because the parties shape the districts. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Franchise Voters: The "they're my team" vote (Medium-to-long-term advantage)
Franchise voters vote the party line down the ballot, and the parties can count on 20 to 30 percent of every election from these voters. That doesn't leave much – as little as 40 percent of the electorate – for an independent to win a seat.
Codified Restrictions: The "recognized political party" vote (Long-term advantage)
This advantage is more insidious: it gives the voters the perception that party candidates are more important or ballot access is restricted to give voters fewer choices. Here's an older post about such restrictions.
Transparency in campaign finance (who's giving, who's getting) is of the utmost importance, as in, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." Parties jostle for position based on their relative strength in money and the factors above. Once in power they seek to raise barriers to keep out and skew voter perception against newcomers.
Money in elections is a bit like the Sirens of Greek mythology, "dangerous yet beautiful creatures, who lured nearby sailors [read politicians] with their enchanting music and voices". The love of money may be the root of all kinds of evil, but the root of power lies in a seat in power.
Updated – Insightful tweet from Matea Gold a few days after my post: