Tag Archives: fundraising

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.

Palin for President? “Refudiating” Her Critics Once More

I just received James Carville’s latest fundraising letter on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (don’t worry, I get them from the Republicans too – it’s my job.)  Featured prominently on the envelope is a not very flattering picture of Sarah Palin, in full snarl.  She looks like she just saw Katie Couric move in next door. Inside, in bold type, Carville warns me that “Palin’s summer of lies road trip is in full swing”, and that she’s “already campaigned for more than a dozen tea party lunatics running for Congress” and has plans to stump for many more.

The fundraising letter reminds me just how formidable a political figure Palin has become. It was little more than a year ago that critics sounded her political obituary in the wake of her decision to quit her position as Governor of Alaska.  Now, if Carville is to be believed, she has become the de facto face of the Tea Party, and a leading figure in the Republican Party, one whose political endorsement is perceived to carry great weight.  How did she manage to escape the political oblivion to which her critics consigned her?

In retrospect, the decision to quit the governor’s position looks like a stroke of pure genius – whether or not she actually plans to run for President. To begin, it freed her to raise money much more easily than she could have done if she remained in Alaska.  Consider the latest fundraising totals for SarahPAC – her leadership PAC – as reported to the FEC.  It is her best showing to date, and she trails only Romney among potential Republican presidential candidates in fundraising in the 2010 electoral cycle. (Note that at the time this chart was created it did not include Pawlenty’s totals for the 2nd quarter 2012.)

This money is important for three reasons.  First, as the Carville fundraising letter notes, Palin is piling up political IOU’s through judicious use of campaign contributions.  Second, it serves as important “seed” money with which to build the infrastructure of an effective fundraising organization – a necessity if she’s going to be a serious presidential contender.  Note that to date most of her money has been raised through social networking sites, like Facebook.  This is in stark contrast to Romney, who has a full-fledged fundraising infrastructure already in place from his 2008 presidential run.  (Palin’s 2008 fundraising was controlled by McCain).   Finally, and not least, the media uses fundraising to measure candidate viability in the “invisible primary” that precedes the actually nominating process.  Because the media is not very good at juggling multiple candidate story lines, however, it is crucial that Palin create the perception that she is one of the top-tier candidates. Moreover, she is touting her ability to attract “small” donations – those less than $200 which formed a significant portion of her latest fundraising totals. About 50% of those who contributed money during the second quarter gave less than $200. That compares with the first three months of 2010, when SarahPAC earned about $400,000, with small donors making up only 25% of contributors. (Recall that this is precisely how Obama’s candidacy was deemed credible by the media – all those “small donations” [which turned out not to be so small!] propelled him into the top tier of prospective presidential candidates.)  In terms of media perceptions, Palin will pass that viability threshold if her fundraising total continues to rank among the top 2-3 candidates. As these news stories make clear, the media is beginning to portray her as a serious candidate, as opposed to the previous narrative in which she was portrayed as Governor Quitter.

The second criterion by which the media assesses candidate viability during the invisible primary is trial heat and other polling results.  Here again, Palin may yet confound the critics; the latest PPP survey of “American Voters” has her in a dead heat with Obama.

Q8 If the candidates for President next time were Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, who would you vote for?

Sarah Palin …………………………………………….. 46%

Barack Obama………………………………………… 46%

Not Sure…………………………………………………. 9%

In assessing this poll, however, keep in mind that Obama was tied with or behind almost any Republican candidate with whom he was matched in a hypothetical vote.  So this says less about voters’ attitudes toward Palin than it does their feelings about Obama.  Moreover, other polls taken earlier this month have Palin trailing Obama by significant amounts. I can’t believe she’s closed the gap that much in a matter of days. In any case, it is far too early to take these trial heat polls for 2012 matchups very seriously.

My point is simply that far from being finished, Palin is by any measure a significant player in American politics today.  The question becomes: how did she pull this off?  One clue comes by viewing her latest fundraiser video.  In it, she comes closer to capturing the spirit animating the Tea Party movement than does any other Republican candidate I’ve seen so far. And the video goes a long way toward illustrating the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a potential Palin presidential candidacy.

To begin, the video tries to do something that is not easy: to both register anger at the direction the country is going, but also to strike an uplifting tone, suggesting better times are ahead. The target audience is clearly one that is crucial to any Republican hoping to recapture the White House in 2012: women.  The video is, at its core, about women and directed toward women – almost all the faces are female, mostly white, across a range of ages.

Note that the video is almost devoid of any policy references, beyond a mild jab at the recently pass health care plan.  Instead, it tries to capture the sense of unease that is driving the tea party movement by focusing on enduring values that Palin suggests we are in danger of losing.

The video is a reminder that Palin’s candidacy is fueled by discontent more than a set of political principles, and that she is marketing a personal image more than a clearly honed political philosophy.  Consider the very name of her leadership PAC – SarahPAC – it is focused on her.  Her rivals, in contrast, have named their PACs for political ideals – see Romney’s FreeStrongAmerica PAC, or Pawlenty’s FreedomFirst PAC (The exception is Huckabee’s HuckPAC.)

Why, then, do I suggest the video also indicates her weakness as a candidate?  Despite the uplifting tone, it possesses an underlying edge.  The Mama Grizzly isn’t nurturing her cubs – she’s rearing up on her hind legs to defend them.  The pink elephants?  Ready to stampede Washington in 2010.  That effort to play both nurturing and avenging mother proved very polarizing during the 2008 campaign, I argued then, and the evidence suggests it continues to do so today.  Palin the person remains immensely attractive to a significant portion of the population.  But another portion dislikes her intensely.  Not surprisingly her favorability ratings have if anything dropped during the last year, to just under 40%, while a bit more than half of those surveyed now view her unfavorably.

It is not clear to me that it will be possible for Palin to reverse these numbers and broaden her political support.  Her biggest advantage, I think, is that liberal pundits continue to dismiss her as an intellectual lightweight who can’t think and put on lipstick at the same time.  That sentiment feeds the populist sentiment that is driving both her undeclared candidacy and the Tea Party movement more generally – that there is a Washington, DC-centered “elite” that is out of touch with the concerns of “ordinary” Americans.  If Palin can successfully position herself as the face of this movement – something the Carville letter suggests she is doing – she may yet “refudiate” her critics one more time.

Addendum:  Brendan Nyhan has an interesting post comparing Palin’s polarized support with Hillary Clinton’s, and suggesting how Palin might learn from Clinton regarding how to reduce that polarization.