Monthly Archives: October 2010

Can Republicans “Buy” the House?

“Is it accurate to say that in the United States it is possible to buy an election?” That was the lead question to me  yesterday by a reporter from the French daily Liberation.   She noted that the current midterm was shaping up to be one of the most expensive in U.S. history, and that the spending seemed to favor Republicans.

Hers is not the first media inquiry to me that began in this fashion and it will undoubtedly not be the last.  Indeed, it is clear that much of the mainstream media, and pundits in the blogosphere as well, are going to frame this election as one in which Republicans “bought” victories in a number of close races, due in large part to the Citizens United case which allows corporations and labor unions to make independent campaign expenditures.  Without commenting on the merits of the Supreme Court’s decision, let me suggest (as I tried to do with the French reporter) that the Citizens United decision is likely not the primary reason for the extraordinary fundraising that has taken place to date.  Instead, the Republican resurgence in fundraising is likely fueled by the same set of factors that led to the Tea Party movement: the rise of partisan issue activists.  These are precisely the same type of  contributors, but on the other side of the ideological ledger, that led to Obama’s record-breaking fundraising in 2008 and contributed to the Democratic fundraising advantages during the last two campaign cycles.

There are a number of reasons for the Republican resurgence during this election cycle, then, but they have little to do with Citizens United.

First, keep in mind that the cost of congressional races has been increasing for some time, beginning long before the Citizens United decision this past January.  Even controlling for inflation, spending on congressional races has more than doubled during the last three decades. There are several reasons why this has occurred, but it reflects both supply and demand; that is,  it’s easier to raise money and it costs more to run for the House and Senate.  On the supply side, there has been an increase in the number and willingness of issue activists to contribute money to support like-minded candidates, and there is some evidence that the candidates who choose to run are increasingly issue-oriented.  That is, their  choice to participate in politics is more likely to be motivated by policy concerns.

At the same time, national parties have morphed from a federation of locally-controlled factions dealing mainly in patronage into efficient fundraising machines that raise and distribute large chunks of money on a national scale.  In terms of money raised, the Democratic Party continues to lead the Republicans, but both parties have been very effective at raising money and distributing it to key races across the country.  (As I show below, the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee is the biggest source of outside money during this campaign cycle, ahead even of the Chamber of Commerce, although the latter has received most of the media scrutiny.)

Finally, the rise of the internet has made it easier to tap into the pockets of activists. My colleague Bert Johnson has written about this (and is giving a talk on this topic this afternoon) but the bulk of these internet donors are issue activists who tend to be extremely partisan.

On the demand side, campaigns are more expensive due to a greater reliance on media buys, polling and other public relation strategies – all of which cost money.   Moreover, there are a number of reasons why campaigning will be even more costly during this election cycle, and that candidates will be even more motivated to raise money. Most notably, there are an extraordinary number of competitive House and Senate races. Charlie Cook lists 92 seats as “toss-ups” or “leaning” toward one candidate.  Of these, 87 are occupied by Democrats, and only 7 by Republicans.   Stu Rothenberg puts the number of seats in play at 97.  Of those, 88 are occupied by Democrats.  According to Chris Cillizza the previous highest number of  races deemed competitive (toss up or leaning) by Cook going back two decades was 58 in 1998.  In 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress, only 54 (nine Democratic, 45 Republican) races were deemed competitive by Cook, and in 2008 that number was 53 (13 Democratic, 40 Republican).

When races are competitive, candidates feel compelled to raise more money – and contributors are more willing to donate.  Here, for example, are the top 2010 races attracting outside spending, according to the Open Secrets website.

Race Total For Dems Against Dems For Repubs Against Repubs
Colorado Senate $18,694,122 $464,928 $5,791,734 $921,360 $4,626,530
Arkansas Senate $13,074,600 $5,482,509 $3,039,567 $110,490 $24,500
Pennsylvania Senate $10,728,669 $1,987,275 $2,710,401 $907,243 $4,040,984
Missouri Senate $9,838,373 $312,353 $2,611,941 $805,701 $3,820,764
Massachusetts Senate $9,293,796 $4,393,055 $-180 $924,944 $1,849,934
Nevada Senate $8,428,495 $652,389 $3,348,715 $1,683,413 $1,103,754
Illinois Senate $6,200,079 $52,509 $3,647,156 $150,302 $1,850,112
Washington Senate $5,776,402 $267,115 $3,196,204 $259,364 $1,413,309
California Senate $5,101,852 $126,307 $281,319 $563,454 $103,298
New York District 20 $5,046,978 $1,642,257 $2,019,035 $807,877 $545,029

Note that they are all competitive Senate races, with the exception of New York’s 20th congressional district race.  Simply put, close contests attract donations, and there are an historically high number of these races this year.

Moreover, both incumbents and challengers are increasingly relying on donations from individuals outside their electoral district.  For example, in Nevada’s Senate race, Senate majority leader Harry Reid had raised a staggering $19 million through June, more than six times that raised by his opponent Sharon Angle.  However, Angle has since announced that she raised an additional $14 million for the most recent fundraising quarter.  (Reid has not yet released his latest fundraising totals but presumably he remains far ahead of her.) According to the Center for Responsive Politics, only 7 candidates managed to raise more than $14 million for the entire 2008 electoral cycle.  Of the amount contributed to Reid, fully 77% came from out of state.  The figures are similar for Angle – 74% of her money came from out of state.  (By the way, can you guess which Senator raised the greatest proportion of funds from out of state sources?  Answer below.)

The growing reliance on out-of-state contributions is another indication that midterm elections are increasingly nationalized, which also contributes to the increase in campaign spending and funding. Here is a list compiled by the Open Secrets people of the top outside groups funding congressional and Senate races in 2010:

Top Groups Making Outside Expenditures in 2010 Elections

Organization Total View* Independent
527s 501c
Democratic Congressional Campaign Cmte $22,993,802 L $22,993,802 $0 $0
US Chamber of Commerce $22,833,777 C $0 $22,833,777 $0 x
National Republican Congressional Cmte $22,362,960 C $22,362,960 $0 $0
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Cmte $16,935,708 L $16,935,708 $0 $0
American Crossroads $9,599,732 C $9,599,732 $0 $0 x X
Service Employees International Union $9,390,502 L $9,368,246 $0 $22,256 X x
Americans for Job Security $7,999,353 C $4,395,302 $3,604,051 $0 x
Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies $7,914,721 C $6,809,939 $1,104,782 $0 x
American Fedn of St/Cnty/Munic Employees $7,798,626 L $7,443,415 $68,539 $286,672 X x
American Future Fund $7,679,346 C $6,000,427 $1,678,919 $0 x

Note that the two parties’ congressional fundraising arms, led by the Democrats, are among the biggest outside contributors.

My point is that there nothing to indicate that the system of campaign contributions and spending is any more “broken” this cycle than it has been in previous election years.  What has changed is where the money is flowing, and through which channels.  In 2006 and again in 2008, the constellation of long and short-term factors favored the Democrats when it came to fundraising.  In this electoral cycle, the Democratic campaign committees continue to hold an edge over their Republican counterparts.  But Republican-backed groups are helping Republicans overcome this gap through independent expenditures, much of it channeled through new types of groups, such as 501 (c) groups.   But if, as some suggest, new fundraising and expenditures totals are reached this year, it will likely have little to do with Citizens United and far more with factors that have been affecting campaigns for several election cycles and which are disproportionately favoring Republicans this time around.

I don’t doubt that if the Republicans regain control of the House and the Senate in 2010, the media – with the tacit encouragement of Democrats – will frame the outcome in terms of a Republican fundraising advantage aided and abetted by the Citizens United decision.  The evidence so far, however, suggests the amount of money raised during this campaign cycle owes much more to a combination of competitive races against the backdrop of increasingly nationalized congressional elections than it does to the Supreme Court’s decision.

Oh, and that Senator who is relying the most on out-of-state donations?  That would be Vermont’s own Pat Leahy.

Jim Jones Drinks the Kool Aid: But Why?

The announcement last Friday of General James Jones’ resignation as the President’s national security adviser, effective in two weeks, continues the exodus of senior policy officials from the current administration.  Jones joins Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel in the ranks of the departed or soon-to-be-departed.     As with the previous resignations, Jones’ departure, at least publicly, is attributed to personal reasons, and not to policy differences with the President.  “Sources” say Jones never intended to stay very long and is leaving now primarily for reasons related to family. Similar sentiments were expressed by Orszag, Romer and Summers when their resignations were announced – none publicly voiced displeasure with their time in Obama’s administration, and all said they were either eager to go back to previous jobs or were leaving for family reasons.  The only exception is Emanuel, who resigned to pursue elective office but he also left on good terms with the President.

As I noted in my earlier posts regarding Orszag’s resignation, I don’t doubt that personal reasons related to family or previous employment played a role in all these resignations save Emanuel’s.  But the reality is that presidents do not typically acquiesce when senior advisers seek to step down unless they are quite willing to see them move on.  And senior advisers rarely step down from positions of influence. Serving in a senior advising role in the presidency is in many respects the job of a lifetime, particularly if you have access to the president and your views are driving policy or political decisions.  For whatever reason, however, that does not seem to be the case with the individuals here.  Except for Emanuel (and perhaps even in his case), these are senior advisers that for one reason or another wore out their welcome at the White House or who chose to leave because of diminished influence.

Interestingly, this seems to be happening more quickly in the Obama administration than in any previous modern presidency. I’ve already presented data in a previous post regarding the OMB position. Now let’s put Jones’ tenure in historical perspective: if we date his departure to last Friday, he lasted a tad more than 1 ½ years as national security adviser.  The average tenure of the previous 20 national security advisers, dating back to the position’s creation during Eisenhower’s administration, and including those advisers who came on near the end of a presidential term, is  2 ¾ years.  If we limit the analysis to only those 8 national security advisers who came on board at the start of the President’s term, the average tenure is 3.9 years.  (I treat Ford as a continuation of the Nixon presidency here.) In short, when a president picks his first national security adviser, that individual typically serves at least through the first term.  Jones did not even last through the first midterm. Here is a list of all 21 national security advisers, with time served.  (Reminder: I treat Jones’ resignation as taking place last Friday.)

Robert Cutler 23-Mar-53 2-Apr-55
Dillon Anderson 2-Apr-55 1-Sep-56
Robert Cutler 7-Jan-57 24-Jun-58
Gordon Gray 24-Jun-58 13-Jan-61
McGeorge Bundy 20-Jan-61 28-Feb-66
Walt W. Rostow 1-Apr-66 2-Dec-68
Henry A. Kissinger 2-Dec-68 3-Nov-75
Brent Scowcroft 3-Nov-75 20-Jan-77
Zbigniew Brzezinski 20-Jan-77 21-Jan-81
Richard V. Allen 21-Jan-81 4-Jan-82
William P. Clark 4-Jan-82 17-Oct-83
Robert C. McFarlane 17-Oct-83 4-Dec-85
John M. Poindexter 4-Dec-85 25-Nov-86
Frank C. Carlucci 2-Dec-86 23-Nov-87
Colin L. Powell 23-Nov-87 20-Jan-89
Brent Scrowcroft 20-Jan-89 20-Jan-93
W. Anthony Lake 20-Jan-93 14-Mar-97
Samuel R. Berger 14-Mar-97 20-Jan-2001
Condoleezza Rice 22-Jan-2001 20-Jan-2005
Stephen Hadley 20-Jan-2005 20-Jan-2009
James Jones 20-Jan-2009 8-Oct-2010

We see that of the previous 20 NSC advisers, only five served for a shorter time than did Jones, and only one of those five – Richard Allen under Reagan – came in with the President.  In short, Jones’ allotment of kool aid came very early indeed.

What are we to make of this pattern of resignations in Obama’s first two years in office?  I talked previously about my research noting a correlation between the changing political context in which presidents operate, as signified by the movement toward a candidate-centered presidential selection process, and a decline in White House and cabinet retention rates, so I won’t revisit that point here.  (I will in a future post try to update that analysis to take account of staff turnover during Obama’s first two years.)

But let me highlight two significant aspects of the Obama resignations. First, these are not insignificant positions – instead, the resignations are occurring among the most important policy and political advisers in his presidency.  This suggests that Obama is rethinking his initial choices for these key positions.  But why?  I am not entirely sure, but a hint, I think, is provided in some of the remarks regarding Jones’ resignation.  According to the Times (see here) White House officials, including presumably the President, were not happy about remarks attributed to Jones in the recent Woodward book  regarding Obama’s decision to escalate the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Evidently Jones failed to back the President more effectively during Obama’s  efforts to resist military pressure to extend the U.S. military presence there. Other sources suggest Jones failed to provide the President with political cover on this issue.

If accurate, this paints a troubling but not historically unprecedented portrait of trends in Obama’s advising system.  Simply put, the pattern seems to be one in which Obama is allowing (or encouraging) advisers who are out of step with his policy views to resign, and replacing them with individuals with whom he feels more comfortable.  Why is this troubling?  Because the most effective advisers are those who encourage dissent within the presidential advisory system, and who force the President to consider alternative views – particularly views which run contrary to his political or policy predilections. By all accounts, Emanuel played this role very very effectively as chief of staff.  Jones, as national security adviser, is in many respects Emanuel’s functional counterpart, responsible for overseeing the national security decisionmaking process.  Note that in this capacity the NSC adviser is often forced to take on two somewhat contradictory roles.  He must be both “honest broker” charged with managing the policy process so that all views are properly vetted and presented to the President.  But he may also be asked to serve as a policy advocate, making the case for a particular policy option.  Balancing these two roles can be very difficult.  For the NSC adviser to be effective, however, the President must reward him or her for performing as honest broker – even if that means encouraging dissent and even backing those who hold views with which the President disagrees.  For whatever reason, this did not happen with Jones.

Note that if I am correct regarding the movement by this President to close ranks, the pattern is not without historical precedent.  Indeed, the tendency in most administrations, over time, is to limit dissent by weeding out those who do not share the President’s views. Moreover, this is not simply presidents’ doing; senior advisers who find themselves continually on the losing side of an argument soon find that life in the White House is not very enjoyable and many choose to move on rather than bang their head on the wall on behalf of a losing cause.  What is different about this presidency, at least so far, is how quickly this is occurring at the most senior advising level; the kool aid is being ladled out early, and in heavy doses, and Obama’s senior aides seem more than willing to drink.

The Sequel to Rahmbo, First Blood: New Blood (Part I?)

Yesterday’s announcement that President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm (Rahmbo) Emanuel is resigning to run for Mayor of Chicago provides a nice opportunity to revisit a topic I’ve addressed in previous posts (see here and here) regarding the tenure of presidential advisers in general and chief of staffs in particular.

My earlier posts were prompted by the arguments made by several pundits earlier this year advising Obama to fire Emanuel as chief of staff.  These pundits, most (but not all) from the Left of the ideological spectrum, claimed that Emanual’s pragmatic, inside-the-beltway, half-a-loaf approach to policy making had undercut Obama’s ability to fulfill key campaign promises, from closing Guantanamo to reversing the major policy elements of the Bush-era war on terror to passing robust health care legislation to getting energy legislation through.  Almost immediately these articles were met with a second set of columns, presumably issued with Emanuel’s approval if not orchestrated by him, that suggested that rather than fire Emanuel, Obama would do better to start taking more of his chief of staff’s advice.  Indeed, these columnists suggested that the President’s biggest policy failures were typically caused by a failure to listen to Emanuel’s recommendations.

These exchanges prompted me to write several blog posts that essentially made two points: first, that high profile chief of staffs like Emanuel who function both as process managers and policy advocates historically experience a much shorter White House shelf life than do chief of staffs who perform only one or the other of these two functions. That is, it is extremely difficult for a chief of staff to both make the White House trains run on time AND determine which trains stop at the President’s Oval Office station and in which order. Second – and somewhat in tension with point one – I indicated that Emanuel’s strong media ties and equally robust connections with Washington powerbrokers developed through his many years on Capitol Hill and working for President Clinton meant he would likely survive any attempts via media leaks to pressure him into resigning. In this regard, I suggested, he was much like his movie alter-ego played by Sylvester Stallone in the various Rambo movies – a one-man wrecking machine that no man, law or President could stop.  Emanuel would step down, I argued, when he was ready, and not before.

This is why I think Emanuel’s decision to resign and run for mayor is a fortuitous event for both him and Obama. Recall that Emanuel had been reluctant to take on the chief of staff position in the first place, and has always preferred electoral politics over working as a staff manager. By seeking the Chicago mayoral post, he has an opportunity to resume doing what he loves best.  Obama, meanwhile,  can use still another resignation by a senior staff member to drive home the point that he is ready embrace “change” in the run-up to the 2010 midterm and, ultimately, his own reelection in 2012.

There is a second reason why Emanuel’s resignation is significant: it lends credence to my typology (theory is too strong a word) that purports to explain why some chiefs of staffs serve for a long time while others have very short tenures. In all there have been 22 individuals designated as “chief of staff” beginning with Sherman Adams’ appointment by Eisenhower in 1953 as as the first such chief.  On average, these individuals serve about 2 ½ years. Based on this, Emanuel’s tenure of just less than two years is not that much shorter than the overall mean rate. However, when we restrict the analysis  to only those seven prior chief of staffs who came in at the start of a presidency, we see that Emanuel’s tenure is much shorter; these previous seven served about three years on average (a figure that includes Ford’s chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld who did not have the opportunity to serve a full term), or almost twice as long as Emanuel time in the White House.

What explains Emanuel’s comparatively short tenure?  I suggest it is because he was a “strong” chief of staff who performed the two somewhat contradictory roles cited above: engineer and conductor.  To manage the White House effectively, other White House staff and cabinet members must believe the chief of staff is an “honest broker” who will scrupulously avoid taking sides in a policy debate, and who will not allow his own policy views to bias the policymaking process.  As a policy advocate and legislative strategist, however, Emanuel not only shaped debate within the White House – he also negotiated on Obama’s behalf with legislators on Capitol Hill.  As the following chart suggests, “strong” chief of staffs like Emanuel who combine both roles tend not to last more than two years in the White House. (Warning: this is a crude typology meant to be suggestive – tenure rates are affected by many factors, including whether the President serves two terms or not. Use with care).

Strong Political Role Weak Political Role
Strong Coordinator Sununu, Regan,  2 years Adams, Card, Haldeman 7 years
Weak Coordinator James Baker, Rumsfeld 3 years McClarty 1 year

If accurate, then, my typology suggests Emanuel wasn’t likely to last much more than a couple of years as chief of staff, if that.  The opportunity to run for Mayor thus afforded the perfect opportunity for Obama to allow Emanual to resign before he became a potential liability.  It’s win-win.

Of course, Emanual’s resignation may provide a window of opportunity – how well Obama takes advantage of this window is another question.  Much depends on who replaces Emanual. For now, that person is Peter Rouse, a long time congressional aide who spent six years as Obama’s chief of staff.  Initial news stories suggest Rouse does not want to stay very long as chief of staff, but if the President asks him to take on the job on a permanent basis, he will almost certainly accede to Obama’s request.

Rouse’s appointment, temporary or not, provides a good opportunity to examine this other facet of the staffing process: historically, what do presidents look for when replacing their first chief of staff?  In my next post I’ll examine this issue.