Money in the Midterms, and Beyond

November 7, 2014
posted by Bob Bauer

The race is on to explain what happened in these midterm elections. In the analysis of campaign money, certain themes are emerging. It is argued that the outside groups facing major questions after 2012 “proved their worth” this year. This demonstration of value consisted in part of how much money they spent but in part in their adoption of improved strategies, including imitation of Democratic data-gathering and micro-targeting. The analysis has run on a few assumptions, stated explicitly or just hinted at it, some of which will inevitably inform the campaign finance policy debate.

Did the outside groups fight off extinction with Republican successes? The New York Times suggests that this was “life-or-death” for Republican-oriented Super PACs and (c) organizations. One question is how “death,” had it occurred, would have been experienced. Would these groups with their right to engage in unrestricted spending have vanished from view if the outcome had been less favorable, and would those behind them have thrown up their hands and returned to more regulated PACs and parties? There is reason to doubt this.

Did the total amount of outside spending in favor of Republican candidates influence the outcome? Once again, the post-election political analyses, not to be confused with the money-in-politics analysis, have not tied the results to superior resources available to the winning side. Total Republican spending two years ago was also prodigious, but the meager results were blamed to a considerable degree on the quality of the candidates. If, however, the total amount spent in 2012 (in the hundreds of millions) could not overcome deficiencies in the candidates, then money can only go so far in explaining election results.

In what combination does money interact with candidates, message, the advantage or disadvantage of incumbency, the quality of individual campaigns, voter priorities, turn-out factors, the location of the contests and national or international events to produce victory? There is no known or agreed answer, but whatever it might be, it is not the raw sum of cash expended for all races. But the overall amount spent can (roughly) be known or estimated, and so it figures prominently in post-election analyses.

And this spending is invariably related to a regulatory system that is failing to contain it. Here is The New York Times on the eve of the 1986 mid-term elections:

 Political strategists have found so many ways to evade Federal statutes that the laws on campaign financing have been seriously undermined in the election cycle that ends next Tuesday, according to experts in the field.

The reporting also tends to identify the possible sources of the unprecedented spending. The Times again, after the 1982 mid-terms:

 Campaign spending on last year’s Congressional races reached $314 million by late November and broke the 1979-80 record by $75 million, according to reports issued by the Federal Election Commission.

 Contributions from political action committees were a significant element in the increase. The groups put $70.4 million into House and Senate campaigns by mid-October, up from $50.7 million two years earlier.

This year of 2014 also became the costliest to this point in history, and the “outside groups” supplied the spending that made the record-setting difference. But this time, the cycle-by-cycle increase was modest, only “inching up.”

Did the outside groups use their money to catch up with the Democrats on data gathering and sophisticated data-driven voter mobilization techniques? These are techniques, The New York Times also tells us, that “were learned from their less moneyed but more effective Democratic counterparts during 2012.” But if the Democrats develop these techniques with less money, then there is no reason to believe that the conservative groups needed considerably more money to “learn” them. Money here is not the decisive consideration.

 Note: And in the same article, a senior Romney strategist attributes Democratic advantage in 2012 to the “financial advantage of an incumbent president able to spend and raise unlimited money.” So it does not seem quite accurate to say that in the development of these techniques the Democrats were “less moneyed.”

Did the outside groups make their critical showing in the primaries, influencing the selection of candidates better positioned to compete in the fall? Certainly outside groups were active in the primaries, but they were similarly active in that phase of the electoral season in 2012. That they may have been more successful in this round than in the last might depend on a variety of factors, not money alone, and perhaps in some cases for reasons other than money.

The question here is, as always, when money explains a result, in whole or in part, and when it does not. In Indiana’s 2012 Senate race, for example, the Republican establishment rushed in with “outside” money to help Senator Dick Lugar, but he could not be saved, and the postelection analysis was not organized around the role of money.

Are the outside groups functioning increasingly like political parties, competing with the parties or acting in their place? As Derek Willis writes, “the political parties, which have been a dominant organizing principle in American elections, have new competition for both existing voters and new audiences.” This a leading topic for reform debate—not how much is being spent, but by whom—as changes in the law combined with changes in politics are raising large questions about the future of the institutional political parties.


Category: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply