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
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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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