Tag Archives: midterm elections

Are Landline-Only Pollsters Systematically Understating Democratic Support?

With less than two weeks remaining before the midterm election, polls continue to indicate that Republicans will make major gains in both the House and Senate.  That has led some Democrat supporters (and others as well) to wonder whether the polls might be overstating Republican support.  One potential source of error is a failure by pollsters to adequately account for cell phone only (CPO) households.  A recent study released by Pew indicates that the CPO households have a distinct partisan bias; as the following table shows, landline-only surveys of likely voters tend to lean Republican by roughly 5% over surveys that include cell phones and landline households.

This has led some people to suggest that polls are overstating Republican support, particularly since some of the most prolific pollsters, such as Rasmussen, rely on automated survey methods that do not survey CPO households at all.  (This is because of restrictions imposed under federal law that prohibit automatic dialing of cell phone numbers.  By automated surveys, I mean surveys conducted by automated voice, rather than a real person conducting the interview.)

While the Democrat bias in CPO households is certainly very real, I don’t think Democrats should pin their hopes on the belief that surveys are systematically understating Democrat support. To begin, pollsters are very much aware of the  CPO problem.  Many major pollsters, such as Gallup, already include CPO households in their sample.  But even those polling outfits such as Rasmussen who do not sample CPO may nonetheless provide accurate survey results.   Consider a Pew study that compared the results of landline only with landline and CPO surveys conducted during the 2008 presidential race.  As the following Pew chart shows (source here), the average error in the landline-only polls was no larger than those that included CPO in their surveys. Although the mean error in landline surveys slightly favored McCain, the difference in errors between combined CPO-landline surveys and landline-only surveys is statistically indistinguishable.

How can this be? The answer lies in how well pollsters conducting landline-only surveys weight their sample demographically.  Simply put, as long as the pollster compensates by choosing landline voters who share the same demographic variables associated with CPO households that have similar political views, landline-only surveys will not be biased.  That is, a properly weighted survey that relies on landline-only households will provide the same results as a survey that includes CPO households.  What are these demographic variables?  They may include income, marriage status,  whether the respondents have children, or education, to name the most prominent.

Of course, with fully 25% of American households CPO, the process of weighting becomes a more difficult task than it was even two years ago.  To achieve the proper weighting pollsters relying on landline-only surveys have to choose the right democraphic weights and they may be forced to over sample from some demographic subgroups in order to achieve a statistically significant subsample.  This oversampling costs extra money, and some companies may be tempted to take shortcuts to avoid spending the money to oversample from the requisite groups.  We won’t know until after the election whether and to what degree landline surveys understate Democratic support.  But keep in mind that many of the most prominent pollsters, such as Gallup, are already including CPO’s households in their survey.

The bottom line?  I think it is highly unlikely that there is an across-the-board systemic bias in the polling so far that is understating the level of support for Democrat candidates for Congress, even among automated pollsters such as Rasmussen.  Democrats are in trouble, and it’s not because pollsters aren’t sampling CPO-only households.

Has Citizens United Caused A Decline in Overall Campaign Spending?

Here’s an interesting question: why is spending on midterm races this cycle down from the previous midterm expenditures in 2006?***

“What’s that?” you ask. Didn’t you just read Politico’s lead story announcing that “Outside organizations – business associations, unions, ideological groups and others – have spent $153 million on political advertising and messaging this midterm election cycle – more than double their total contributions in the 2006 cycle, according to a new study.”

And didn’t the Open Secrets website publish data showing that independent expenditures have “nearly tripled between the 2006 and 2010 cycles” – an increase that, quite predictably, they claim is “attributable to the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision”?  How can I suggest spending is down this campaign cycle?

Because it is. As always, one needs to dig beneath the headline to examine the data itself.

In this case, the data cited by Politico and highlighted on the Open Secrets website excludes spending by the political parties themselves. When we include party spending, it turns out that overall spending is, so far, less than what was spent during the 2006 midterms. Here’s the actual data on total campaign spending, including money spent by the parties, as listed at the Open Secrets website.

Cycle Total $ Pct increase from previous election type Ind. Expend. $  without Parties Ind. Expend. $ with Parties
1990 7,272,769 5,658,990 5,710,074
1992 19,758,475 10,946,636 11,068,327
1994 9,565,051 31.5% 5,219,965 5,245,736
1996 29,548,466 10,168,022 21,832,732
1998 16,755,007 75% 10,266,136 11,820,470
2000 54,531,695 33,022,189 36,693,258
2002 30,920,191 84.5% 16,588,100 20,221,814
2004 446,283,002 68,718,830 316,710,285
2006 299,848,443 870% 37,380,748 268,391,469
2008 581,971,573 156,845,524 440,267,438
2010 230,437,494 ? 111,045,828 188,011,964

Of course, there is a bit less than a month to go during the current cycle, so it is quite possible that spending for the 2010 midterms may in the end match or even eclipse spending from previous midterms.  But it appears that the deluge of campaign money that was supposed to appear in the wake of the Citizens United decision has not materialized.  Who could have predicted that?

Why, my colleague Bert Johnson did, in a guest blog at this site shortly after the decision was rendered.  Bert noted that the Court’s decision allowing corporations and labor unions to spend money on independent expenditures might alter the pathway through which money was raised and spent, but that it would likely have little independent impact on the total amount of money that flowed into the system.  It appears that Bert was correct and for reasons that long-time readers have heard me express many times before: money always finds its way to candidates.   Put another way, Citizens United was unlikely to spur an increase in spending because the money from corporations and labor unions was already finding its way to candidates through other means, including political actions committees, 527 groups, and nonprofits.  In the current election cycle, donors have evidently opted to move away from parties and toward contributing to 501(c) non-profit groups, presumably because these types of contributions do not have to be disclosed.  But the total amount of money flowing into the system does not appear to have significantly increased, despite the predictions to the contrary by many pundits.  Similarly, the accelerating rate of increase in spending over the previous midterm seen in the past is not likely to occur this time around.

***ADDENDUM:  A few minutes after posting this article but before sending out the distribution notice, I went back to the Open Secrets website to see whether they had updated their data – and they have.  Rather than rewrite the post’s title and lead sentence  (rewriting seems Orwellian and frankly, I’m hoping the title will get you read the post!) I am simply including this addendum. You can see the latest fundraising data here, but the important point is that in the span of roughly a day, the Center for Responsible Politics has recorded an additional $13 million in overall independent spending.  Combined with additional independent spending by parties, this has finally pushed the overall independent (not total) spending for the 2010 election cycle to $246 million.  That is still less than what was spent in this category in 2006 (see table above) but, according to the website, it is on pace as of Oct. 15 to set a new record for independent spending.   As far as I can tell Open Secrets has not updated their overall campaign spending as yet, but I expect that in the end it too will eclipse the 2006 record, given the number of competitive seats.  But it is surprising (at least  to me) that it has not increased by a greater amount.  One explanation is that with the slow economy,  there simply isn’t as  much money to give. However, we may yet see a surge in spending during the closing days. Stay tuned.

(Note: I have slightly edited the final paragraph to make clear that the record spending is based on a comparison of outside spending by groups and parties as of Oct. 15, 2006 vs Oct. 15, 2010, and not a comparison of overall independent or total spending, both of which as yet remain below their final 2006 amounts).

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.