About this Blog
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Democrats, Keep the Filibuster! | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority »

Will Money Save the Democrats?

Reid Wilson, our former colleague and now the editor-in-chief of the Hotline On Call, had an interesting column today explaining "why Democrats will keep the House."

He offers four reasons.

(1) Democrats have so far raised more money.

(2) Money facilitates turnout.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12.

Each of these points has some validity, but in each one Wilson is over-stating his case. Let's take them in turn.

(1) Democrats have more money. Wilson is pointing to an advantage that the Democrats have, but he has mis-framed it. In The Politics of Congressional Elections, Gary Jacobson writes:

Campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns; the more dollars spent, the less gained by each additional dollar. Congressional incumbents usually exploit their official resources for reaching constituents so thoroughly that the additional increment of information about their virtues put forth during the campaign adds comparatively little to what is already known and felt about them...the extent to which voters know and like the incumbents is unrelated to how much is spent on the campaign. The situation is quite different for nonincumbents. Most are largely unknown before the campaign, and the extent to which they penetrate the awareness of voters - which is crucial to winning votes - is directly related to how extensively they campaign. The money spent on nonincumbents' campaigns buys the attention and recognition that incumbents already enjoy at the outset of the campaign

This is a crucially important point, for it suggests that Wilson incorrectly frames the effect of money. What matters is not so much the dollar advantage Democratic incumbents have over Republican challengers, but whether Republican challengers will have raised enough to "penetrate the awareness of voters." That remains to be seen.

Also, expect the Democratic money advantage to be diminished somewhat as business PACs and others primarily concerned about access in the 112th Congress begin shifting dollars to the Republicans. Additionally, expect enthusiastic Republican donors to start identifying the most promising candidates over the next few months. The Democrats enjoyed a similar uptick in their fortunes in 2006. That is inevitable as a party appears headed to transition from minority to majority.

(2) Money facilitates turnout. I think that turnout operations add less value than party insiders like to claim. Mostly, they contact voters who were already going to vote. All that money for turnout might have been useful in New York City in the 1870s when Tammany Hall could get you to vote by offering you a job. But nowadays the parties cannot do anything like that. Ultimately, you vote for purposive reasons, i.e. because you want a better world. The parties can help influence you on that count, but their effectiveness is overstated by insiders and pundits generally, and by Wilson in this instance.

Additionally, we're talking here about the marginal turnout effect of the dollars that the Democrats have raised, but Republicans have not. Is that really going to make a difference between majority and minority status?

Final point: Republicans appear by every metric to be much more enthusiastic than Democrats. Does the GOP really need to spend as much as the Democrats on turnout this cycle? I'd say no, and that instead they can direct their resources to persuading Independent voters - who usually swing elections and who are currently R +11 in the Gallup generic ballot (compared to D+18 on Election Day, 2006). I disagree with the conventional wisdom that midterms are "base elections." Like all elections, they hinge on the unaffiliated vote.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research. Easily the weakest point in the piece, Wilson writes: "If Democrats spend the money early to portray Republicans as unacceptable alternatives, and to frame races as contests they can control, they will be using their monetary advantages to the fullest." Will this sink the occasional Republican candidate? Of course. Will it be sufficient to stem a Republican tide? Of course not.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12. If PA-12 was the average congressional district, Republicans would have little chance of taking the House. However, a few salient points about that race:

(a) Democratic registration vastly outpaces Republican registration in the district, meaning that there were more Democrats who could come home.

(b) 255 congressional districts voted for George W. Bush in 2004, but PA-12 was not one of them.

(c) The special election was held on the same day as the Democratic primary battle between Sestak and Specter, meaning that Democrats had a larger draw at the top of the ticket.

(d) The Democrat, Mark Critz, ran an outsider campaign that distanced himself from the controversial votes of the 111th Congress.

Put simply, extrapolation from PA-12 is hard to do.

Wilson's first three points are essentially reducible to the incumbency advantage, which is a real thing that can and will aid the Democratic party in November. But he has overstated or misidentified its importance.

Would these factors be sufficient to stop the Republicans from taking the House in a more evenly divided year? I'd say yes. I think the Democratic incumbency advantage is sufficient to absorb a modest Republican popular vote victory. I'd add that Republicans who do not raise enough money will not win elections, even in a cycle such as this.

But so far this year the Republicans have enjoyed a sizable and sustained lead in the generic ballot, something that has never happened in the history of the poll. Currently, the GOP lead is at 4.5%. If that holds through November, the Democratic money advantage will not be enough to alter the orientation of the electorate sufficiently: if the RCP average has the GOP up 5 points in the generic ballot the day before, the GOP should have around a 5 point advantage on Election Day.

Nor will Democratic money be sufficient to reorganize such a pro-Republican electorate in a way that enough Democrats survive. No party has held a House majority while losing the popular vote by 5 points since before the Civil War. With the "Solid South" - voting overwhelmingly Democratic with exceedingly low turnout - a thing of the past, such a feat is all but impossible. A $20 million cash advantage for the DCCC is not going to change that.

-Jay Cost