Monday, January 31, 2011

Company Book (Or: All This I've Done For You)

I think I'll step into a great dispute over at TAP between Jamelle Bouie and Monica Potts over the importance of big, outside money in politics. Bouie:
Undoubtedly, the Koch brothers put a considerable amount of money in advancing conservative causes and aiding conservative politicians. But for actual elections, I'm not sure that it has a hugely measurable impact. Any given candidate's fate has more to do with fundamentals...They can't shift the tides of public opinion, and they can't reverse an election result; all they can do promote their ideas to elites, and -- in some cases -- make an electoral environment a little more favorable. 
Potts responds:
I do think that on the macro issues the Koch brothers hold a lot of sway. We know from Jane Mayer's terrific reporting in the New Yorker that they've helped fuel campaigns against items on Obama's agenda from climate change to health-care reform. Much of that work amounts to a giant misinformation campaign that works to some degree, and if it hasn't diminished support for the bills entirely, it's certainly slowed down the speed at which we address those problems. It's also helped give power to the politicians who support trying to unravel those efforts.
They're both right! In part. On the one hand, Bouie is correct that outside money, even a lot of it, is unlikely to swing very many votes, or to change support for policies. Health care reform was relatively unpopular in 2010 because Obama was unpopular, and Obama was unpopular mainly because the economy stunk.  Money may push things around a bit, but almost always on the margins.

On the other hand, money can make a significant difference in what the opposition talks about, what positions their candidates hold, and who contests and wins primary elections. It was highly likely (perhaps I'd go so far as to say inevitable) that Republicans would oppose Barack Obama's proposals on climate, and highly likely that Republicans would side with GOP-aligned interest groups on climate/energy issues. What was not certain at all is how Republicans would do so. It seems to me that one plausible outcome would have been for Republicans to agree with Democrats (and the scientific consensus) on climate change, but to demand policies which were much better for GOP-aligned energy interests than whatever Democrats chose to offer. 

Last caveat: it's often difficult to separate money as a key variable in these things. Politicians respond -- in my view, should respond -- to major interests within their coalition. The energy industry is a large interest in the US; it hires lots and lots of people, makes major contributes (or not) to economic growth, and will have a lot to do with the future of the economy. It is inevitable that it will be represented, at least to some extent, by at least one of major political parties. Whether spending gazillions of other money to fund think tanks, publicity campaigns, and the rest of it win more representation is an empirical question, but one that does not have an obvious or easy-to-access answer.


  1. What's with the inconsistent font today?

  2. I would venture that the GOP's tack has more to do with Rush Limbaugh's mouth than the Koch brother's money. For a number of years the GOP base has been turning against not only compromise but pseudo-compromise, and argument itself.

    Perhaps this is due to Koch money behind the scenes, but it seems more rooted in the same culture insecurities that fuel talk radio. And so far as I can tell, Rush et al. are on the air not because shadowy billionaires fund them, but because they are profitable radio.

  3. Um, isn't cash advantage over an opponent highly correlated with who wins? not saying it is always an advantage (whitman, mcmahon) but having someone spend on your behalf, with commercials, in your district = immensely helpful. you can spend less time fundraising, more time with your constituents as well...

  4. Anon,

    Causation has proved hard to show. Challengers in congressional races are definitely helped by money (but not as much as the press would have you believe); incumbents are probably helped some, it seems, but not much.

  5. Wouldn't money tend to flow toward prospective winners, or at least perceived competitive candidates? Whether people are trying to affect election outcomes or merely buy access, giving money to hopeless longshots is pretty much down the drain.

  6. What's the grounds for the claim that money helps (or only helps primarily) "at the margins"? I keep seeing that, and I don't know what it's really intended to mean or what the grounds for claiming it are.

    Some things which seem clear: 1) No money == no win. (Almost always.) Few things are as brutely necessary as money and the *way* a lot of other things compensate for lack of money is by, well, getting money. 2) More money, even staggeringly more money, is not sufficient for a win. We can see that from Rich People Failing To Win (Perot, Huffington, Whitman, etc. <-- Interestingly, the examples I know are all high profile, high stakes) On Their Own Money.

    But what happens in a typical case between otherwise evenly matched candidates?

    Just because it doesn't always work, doesn't mean that it doesn't typically work, or work substantively. What's the data that supports the claim that it only "really" helps on the margins (i.e., it isn't a substantive predictor of electoral success, generally)?

    (I'm willing to believe this. I'd just like it clarified.)

  7. I saw Jonathan's post after posting mine: Challengers are helped but incumbents not so much.

    I guess I still don't quite understand: Is it that there's some reasonable minimal threshold you need to get to? If the challenger has $X and the incumbent has $2*X, does it help the challenger to get to $2*X? If so, does the incumbent benefit from $4*X? Does it matter what X is (for the size of the race?)

  8. IANAPS, but I gather that what matters is what X is - basically, you need enough for TV ads so that people out there to know you're running. Once you reach that point, additional spending hits diminishing returns.


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