Many people assume that whoever is in power will raise more money than those who aren't. They also assume that whichever side spends more money always wins. As it turns out, neither assumption is true; many other factors play a role in determining the outcome of elections.
Still another assumption: The national party committees for Republicans, who are prohibitive favorites to retain their House majority in 2014, should be raising money hand over fist, while House Democrats shouldn't be raising much money at all. No and no.
Counterintuitively, in 2013, the House Democrats' congressional campaign committee outraised the Republicans' committee, $75.8 million to $60.5 million, and it ended the year with $29.3 million cash on hand, compared with the Republicans' $21 million-plus. The GOP's likelihood of keeping House control, it seems, has made little difference in terms of raking in campaign funds, at least so far. On the Senate side, where the Democrats' majority is in real danger, they outraised the Republicans, whose odds of seizing control aren't bad and—if the conventional wisdom is right—are getting better.
The truth is, though, that both sides did pretty well. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled in $52.6 million in 2013, nearly half again as much as the National Republican Senatorial Committee's $36.7 million. After subtracting each committee's debts, Democrats ended up with a slight edge ($8.3 million to $8 million) in cash on hand.
Theoretically, the Democratic National Committee, representing the party that has held the White House for the past five years, ought to be blowing the Republican National Committee out of the water. Instead, Republicans outraised Democrats last year, $80.5 million to $64.7 million, and had nearly twice as much cash on hand. Republicans had feared that their disappointing showing in the 2012 elections would have a chilling effect on their fundraising in 2013, hurting the RNC most of all. Not so.
Given the complicated nature of fundraising for super PACs, now that some of their affiliates must report their finances, it's difficult to ascertain for sure what's going on. Word on the street is that fundraising by some of the Republican establishment- oriented groups has slowed substantially, while organizations allied with ultraconservative brothers David and Charles Koch have apparently more than compensated for the decline. This is another case of how intense interest by a handful of gazillionaires can make up for a lot of problems.
The report that the Koch brothers and their group, Americans for Prosperity, spent $122 million last year has Democrats—especially those in the Senate—apoplectic. Some Senate Democrats worry that no matter how much money they raise, individually and through the DSCC, the Koch brothers and their allied super PACs will outspend them.
This was probably the impetus for Democrats' recent announcement of an effort to raise $60 million for an unprecedented 4,000-person field operation in states with key Senate races. The party hopes to exploit the data- and analytics-driven field operation that President Obama's campaign deployed so successfully in 2012. National Republicans and conservative groups are putting together their own program, although it's too soon to see what it will look like.
The Democrats' idea is pretty mind-boggling—to spend these tens of millions of dollars in perhaps a dozen or fewer states, some as small as Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Montana, along with more-populous states such as Michigan and North Carolina. But will that be enough? If Democrats split this money and field staffing (for the sake of argument) evenly among 12 states, each would get $5 million, enough for 333 field staffers per state. In Louisiana, say, that would work out to an average of just over five workers for each of the 64 parishes—and probably more than that, realistically, in the vote-heavy parishes such as Orleans and East Baton Rouge. For anyone who worked in congressional campaigns of yore, the unprecedented amount of money being spent nowadays—suitable for a presidential campaign—dwarfs anything they used to be able to do.
Two conclusions seem clear. The first: More than ever, the American political process is awash in money. House and Senate Democrats, House and Senate Republicans—all of them are raising and spending enormous amounts of money. But don't forget the law of diminishing returns. Spending 10 percent more than the other side doesn't necessarily buy a commensurate political advantage.
A second conclusion: The law of diminishing returns also applies to television. Once someone has seen 300 TV ads for a candidate, how much more effective will 350 or 400 ads be? The truth is that in swing states and markets with highly competitive Senate, House, and gubernatorial races, voters (and nonvoters) see so many ads, they eventually tune them out. Or, they never see them at all. My daughter lived in Ohio in 2012 without cable television or rabbit ears, watching only Apple TV and listening to music on her iPhone or to NPR in her car. Any television or radio advertising she encountered was purely incidental.
That's why campaigns have no choice but to find new ways to communicate with voters, particularly younger ones. The bombardment of TV ads will no longer suffice. Political campaigns already require—and will increasingly require—a bit of sophistication and finesse. Simply outspending your opponent won't be enough.
This article appears in the February 22, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Money Isn’t Enough.
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