Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How Money Works in Congressional Elections

You'll want to read John Sides on the David Brooks column about money in politics.  As John says, Brooks is correct to say that people overrate the importance of money in elections -- but John corrects him on the current debate over spending effects: "the major debate is not over whether money matters, it's over the relative impact of incumbent and challenger spending."  The people who study this (and I'll repeat John's citation of Gary Jacobson) most definitely do believe that campaign spending matters -- but not as much as some think.

 Why does money have only limited importance?  It turns out that there are two major factors on individual vote in Congressional elections, and then various small factors.  For one of the major factors, partisanship, campaign spending doesn't matter at all: no one sees a bunch of ads and switches from being a Democrat to being a Republican.  Since House districts often have overwhelming partisan majorities, party voting alone explains the outcome of most House elections.  Spending also matters little to some of the small factors, such as presidential approval and the condition of the economy.

The reason campaign spending does matter is the other major factor.  It turns out that if you ask people what they think about the two candidates, and note the balance of things they say that they like and dislike about each, that the combination of that is a good indication of how they'll vote.   Not too surprising, right?  If I can think of three things I like about the incumbent, and nothing at all about the challenger, of course I'm more likely to vote for the incumbent.  In fact, that's how the incumbency advantage actually works -- over time, constituents tend to learn a couple of positive things about the local Member of Congress and (assuming no scandals) nothing negative, while they usually have barely heard of the challenger.  Again, party matters: many of us will still vote for a challenger from our party even in the face of that situation.  These are all tendencies, not absolutes.

Money, of course, helps candidates "teach" us to learn good things about them and lousy things about their opponents.  The most obvious point, as John Sides quoted Jacobson as saying, is that a challenger who doesn't spend much money and has no other means of getting the word out will have no chance to win.  It's a little different for incumbents, however.  Incumbents do all sorts of things in the course of fulfilling their official duties -- casework, district projects, meeting with constituents, local media hits.  A surprising number of voters will actually have had either a direct positive experience with a long-term Member of Congress, or know of someone who has had a positive experience.  By the time a multi-term incumbent gets to the 2010 election, it's not clear how much a bunch of TV ads will add to all of that.  More generally, campaigns and campaign spending are only one of the things that affect how we feel about the candidates, which (remember) is only one factor in determining how we vote. 

So money matters.  It just matters in limited ways.


  1. I'm not a political scientist, but I feel like this latest wave of campaign finance articles is missing a giant elephant in the room: when your campaign depends on expensive ads, it disincentives candidates from advocating policies that funders don't like.

    Brooks et. al seem to focusing on the argument that both parties spend lots of money on ads, so there's no problem, since neither party has an advantage. It's crazy that in a time of 10% chronic unemployment you don't see ads advocating a widely agenda like soaking the rich in order to pay for jobs programs. Soaking the rich + jobs programs poll really highly among voters, but it seems impossible to find a rich funder or special interest willing to buy adtime advocating it.

    Am I wrong? Does money have a corrupting influence on both parties? Why don't you mention this?

  2. James,
    That's a really tough nut to crack, because it involves two directions of causation. So, are members voting to get NRA money, or is the NRA giving money to those that share its ideology already? Do votes cause money or does money cause votes?

    Now, the best method to deal with this, statistically, is multistage estimation: 2SLS, it's called. But, in so doing, it's very possible that we're giving one of the causal directions too much credit for a correlation. That said, political scientists running 2SLS models tend to find very little effect of money on votes.

    However, the votes are far from the most interesting part, they're just the easiest to study. Does money affect proposing bills, or pushing behind the scenes to get something adopted, or the floor agenda? These questions are a lot harder to answer, and while we suspect the answer is yes, the evidence is so far not very solid. Bits and pieces, but nothing concrete. A major problem is that we just don't have a nice comparison group; we don't know what politics without money looks like. So, it's hard to say exactly what money does.

    As for why you don't see ads saying "soak the rich", I think the answer to that is kinda complex. First, those who would advocate such a position, quite frankly, don't run ads: they're House members in urban districts, and ads are a very ineffective tool for them: targeted mailers work much better. Ads in an urban area are more expensive on a per person basis, and you're paying to reach tons of people who aren't in your district.

    I think the second reason relates to a Joe-the-Plumber reason. People seem to think they will make more than they do. Despite the US being now the 2nd worst democratic country in intergenerational class mobility, the American Dream holds that true. It's a national myth. And people don't want their future selves to be taxed.

    I also think the answer might involve media frames, the dominant political culture, and many other things. But, I think those 2 things enter into it.

  3. Hey thanks for the ridiculously thorough answer Matt!

    Still, I'm a little skeptical about your arguments why we don't see more "soak the rich" ads. When I google polls, it seems like a pretty broadly popular policy to me (admittedly I couldn't find a poll broken down by urban vs non-urban districts)

    Earlier this year, I attended the big deficit reduction rally America Speaks, and anecdotally I was struck that most of the attendees, even the white conservatives from the suburbs, supported soaking the rich. To counteract the "joe the plumber effect" I saw participants rationalize soaking the rich as a "fat cat tax" or shared responsibility. And these were a bunch of older caucasian homeowners from the 'burbs!

    The data bore this out:

    I still think the reason why we don't see ads about "soaking the rich" is that politicians can't find donors willing to fund the ads.

  4. I do agree to both of you guys. If you know this guy after my name, he run for congress in his district and did not won. Even though he is that famous and shall I say generous enough for his constituents. He never won election because his constituents knew he can serve better even if he is not in congress.

    But for the second time, he run for elections once more but moved to other district and got a favorable result. His money and fame prevailed. We know that this guy doesnt really fit to be in congress.

    But in fairness to this guy, he is an advocate for a good cause for all his countrymen.

  5. It's certainly interesting to try to tease out data on the possible effects of campaign spending, both on election outcomes and policy choices of winning candidates. But the responses I've seen to the sort of self-serving apologias for unlimited, untransparent spending from folks like Brooks have focused on the "what is or isn't being bought" and not the erosion of legitimacy of the political system as a whole.

    The version of (representative) democracy we have in the US is, in part, based on the myth of egalitarian civic participation. Each of us as individuals has a extremely modest opportunity to make our voice heard. One-man-one-vote, which can be augmented by spending one's time (volunteering, running for office) and a fairly limited amount of money. Those who have more intense preferences can choose to participate more actively, but the principle of a systsem based on civic particpation is that we're all on a fairly level playing field when it comes to what any single individual can do. In theory, it's not a plutocracy.

    That's why it's been the appearance of corruption of affecting election outcomes, not whether donations actually corrupt or affect election outcomes, that has been of signal importance.

    Granted, citizen participation has always been a civic myth. But political systems rely on simplifications, which don't have to be uniformly "true" in practice, of widely shared organizing principles upon which the legitimacy of the system is based. And systems have legitimacy problems when there is wide-spread perception that practice significantly diverges from those foundational principles.

    Now, the civic participation myth, beloved of us goo-goo types,shouldn't be treated by political scientists as a sacred cow. There's also lots of value to studying to what extent the appearance of money corrupting the political system is itself a myth.

    But if we're going to shrug and implement a new sytem of Money in Politics based on the finding that it doesn't matter all that much, we're also going to have to revise the principles on which public legitimacy relies. Justice Kennedy seemed to give it a try -- the equality of citizen participation doesn't matter, isn't part of the very definition of citizenship to be safeguarded. The only thing we're concerned about is the fact of "corruption" by money, and all we need is sunlight to keep money disinfected.

    If that's the new system bestowed on us by the Supreme Court, then transparency is key. Which is why the Dems are pushing the DISCLOSE Act and yammering about hidden Chamber of Commerce donations. And pace Brooks and much of the pundit class, the attacks on undisclosed (especially foreign) donations will resonate with a significant chunk of the public. Because it goes to the heart of our system's foundational legitimacy.

    If Brooks is going to legitimate the new order, he needs to do better than a bit of data and handwaving and "don't worry your little heads about it".


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