Why Money Is the Wrong Measure in Political Races

The dollars are flowing into both parties’ campaign committees. Here’s why it might not matter.

National Journal
Charlie Cook
Feb. 20, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

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