Monday, September 26, 2011

How to Give

In other fallout from that NYT story about Obama donors I mentioned earlier, Matt Yglesias had a great item over the weekend, arguing that campaign donors who supported Barack Obama last time around but are disappointed with him actually could use their money more wisely anyway.

That's exactly right. What we know about all campaigning -- and spending money is a subset of all campaigning -- is that the more voters are already persuaded, the less campaigning matters. Obvious, right? In practical terms, that means that money matters more less* in general elections (when the strong effect of party identification is in play) than it does in primary elections. Next, money (and, again, all electioneering) is less important to the extent that voters have other sources of information. So the more news coverage that an election gets, the less campaigning matters. On top of all that, money has diminishing returns. That's because "buying" name recognition or getting people to remember one or two things is a lot easier than getting them to learn a seventh or eighth item about a candidate -- and invariably a full-strength campaign will waste money re-teaching voters things they've already learned.

So in terms of affecting the election outcome, as a donor you should prefer primaries to general elections, low-press-coverage elections over high-press-coverage elections, and underfunded candidates over well-funded candidates.

Against that are the effects of winning different types of elections. Money is more important in primaries...but if it mainly helps one candidate beat a very similar candidate, the outcome might matter less than defeating the other party's candidate in a general election. Your $100 contribution is far more likely to swing a school board election than a presidential election, but presidents are far more important than members of the school board.

So there's no mathematical equation for exactly how to spend your money, but Yglesias is certainly right: it's hard to see presidential re-election as a good use of money, no matter how important the president is (and remember: as much as I'll talk about presidential weakness around here, I've also always pointed out that the president is the single most important single elected official). My guess is that for most partisans, the best choices are open Congressional (House and Senate) primaries in party-friendly seats with retiring Members, and close Senate general elections. But then again I should mention that I tend to have a strong and probably unjustifiable bias towards national politics; it may be that state legislative races and local races are really the best bets for many people.

I should mention too that not all money donated to candidates is for the purposes of affecting election results (it's also used for lobbying, or to secure access, and in some circumstances the motives are probably more social than political), but here we're talking just about money given in hopes of changing who gets elected.

Either way, I think Yglesias has it exactly right: it's very much a good idea to participate in elections, including giving money if one can do so, but giving to an incumbent president seeking re-election is almost certainly going to be one of the worst possible choices.

*Corrected. Money matters less in general elections than in primaries.


  1. I think you're exactly right that individual donations to smaller campaigns are money better spent, at least in terms of influence on the election outcome and policy outcomes afterwards.

    I think, also, your bias is a little obvious. Granted I can't quite prove that a school board member is more important to an individual who makes donations. But it strikes me that that school board has more direct influence over policy that has more direct influence on the lives of constituents.

    Furthermore, it strikes me that a school board member has very good odds to run and win other races to elective office. Thus, in the long run, a school board race, if successfull, could have tremendous long-term influence over a wide range of policy. Just look at Obama. He started with a relatively small office and well...

    That's typical story.

  2. Meh.

    You're working with the assumption that a dollar is like a vote. Well, they are: hard money doesn't count toward the final result.

    With a bundler, at least when you raise 50K that gets some points for person who bundled. But small dollar internet donations: nada.

    So you've got to look at the moviations of the small dollar internet donor. What does he want? Fame ? fortune? A picture of the president? Because you are not getting any of the usual goodies (advance team bringing you the rope line,etc)

    What small donors really want -- and the Republicans discovered this back in the 1980s -- is partisan consistency. That is why Obama is suffering now and getting no love from them.

  3. Is this quote a typo: "In practical terms, that means that money matters more in general elections (when the strong effect of party identification is in play) than it does in primary elections."

  4. One other thing worth pointing out is that Obama will need a lot less money this time around, since he won't be campaigning in any primaries.

  5. What about rewarding an incumbent President who moves closer to one's views?

    If small contributions increase when Obama defends SS & Medicare, but fell when he negotiated the deficit deal, isn't that a signal the campaign will understand?


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