Monday, August 20, 2012

Akin and Party Money

I have a post up over at PP about parties and the Todd Akin flap; it's always fun for me when there's news that actually allows me to talk about how parties work.

There's tons of talk about this right now, and judging from the twitter traffic there's one specific part of the topic that I didn't really cover specifically and should revise and extend on: party money. So Benjiy Sarlin says "Something Todd Akin likely considering: Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell raised ungodly sums of grassroots money," while Mark Blumenthal tweets "Akin’s last cash-on-hand was ~$500K. Asking now, can small donors beat NRCC/CW?"

Here's the thing: "grassroots" money and "small donors" are, in most cases, mostly party money, and will therefore respond to party cues. So if the Republican Party network is united against Akin, then there are not going to be any positive cues, and there are not going to be any ungodly sums of money. On the other hand, if some party groups, including a significant subset of the GOP-aligned partisan press, stick with Akin, then he very well could benefit. In other words, while we shouldn't think of small money donations as entirely a function of other party actors' choices, it's likely that those other party actors are the more important variable here.

Unfortunately, unless I've fallen behind on the literature (possible! If so, please let me know, campaign finance and party network scholars!), we really don't know how much of the money spent in a typical House, Senate, or presidential race is in fact party money, properly understood. That's because it's an awful lot of work to figure out whether some individual donor is a party donor or not...well, that's not right; it's relatively straightforward for any specific individual donor, barring confusing coding by the FEC, but it's a lot of work to do that task for all donors.

We also don't really know a lot of the direction of influences here. For example, is a talk show host such as Sean Hannity perfectly free to choose what to do in this case, or does he really have no choice but to follow others within the party network? Or at least, are there strong incentives for him to fall in line, at least if others within the party network are unified? And do the same constraints influence the behavior of, say, Karl Rove? Or the Koch brothers? Don't assume you know the answer: it's possible that Republicans are happy to take cash from big money donors only if those donors are willing to support whatever the rest of the party decides. But it's certainly also possible that they are (at the very least) highly influential. We have quite a bit of good reporting on all of this, but few definitive answers. Same question about other groups within the party. For example, anti-abortion groups might be inclined to continue supporting Akin; what, if any, influence to other party actors have on them to keep their mouths shut? And what influence do anti-abortion groups have on other party actors? In practical terms: suppose organized anti-abortion groups support Akin but most other organized groups in the GOP want him out; how will that affect Akin's small-donor or "grassroots" fundraising?

It seems to me that party network scholars have begun to do a pretty good job of developing a conceptual framework and a vocabulary for answering some of these questions, but many of them are still unanswered (and of course that's the nature of it, since parties are not static, so answers that were correct fifteen years ago might be wrong by now). Usually, nominations are good chances to see how things work within parties, but extraordinary events such as this one can be very helpful.


  1. I don't think Akin will withdraw his nomination, and I don't think that the Republican party will force him to, either. He has not said anything that the true-believing pro-lifers disagree with. There has yet to be a price paid among Republicans for being too conservative about abortion.

    It just sounds bad to the rest of us.

    1. There is a price to be paid for being too whacko, but it came at the November elections last time. Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell showed the GOP party actors the cost of nominating whackos, but it didn't filter far enough, evidently.

      JB's column in WaPo is an interesting one. We'll get to see how strong the party establishment is vs. powerful factions within the party.

    2. ModeratePoli, the freakin' Republican platform outlaws abortion in the case of rape or incest. The man was literally saying the party line. But now it's unacceptable?

  2. Prof. Bernstein,

    Somewhat related question: What is Mitt Romney's status as a party leader for Republicans? I am asking because he recently called on Akin to withdraw, and Akin, in what is actually a good question in one sense, asks why Romney can't worry about running his own campaign. Romney obviously doesn't have a lot of political experience in office, isn't a "voice of the party" like, say Rush Limbaugh, has changed many of his more liberal views only recently, and so on. So to what degree should Republicans listen to him or respect him? What pull does he have right now? Let's say he doesn't win the presidency. What role does he have in the party, then? He'd be a presidential nominee whose only other public service was governing a liberal state for one term. Are there other examples of a presidential nominee who at this stage held so little sway within in his own party?

    1. I think the key thing to remember here is that whatever they think of Romney, they're stuck with him -- and if he goes down they're all hurt (to the extent that they prefer to be in office; there's some question about whether that normal condition holds for the current GOP) and, if he wins, they'll have to deal with him for at least four more years.

      I don't think his position is particularly unusual for out-party nominees.

    2. Thanks. I certainly see what you are saying that their fortunes are in part tied to his, like it or not, and that that is probably the most important thing. I guess I'm comparing him to people Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, Bob Dole, etc. Compared to these people it seems to me that Romney does not have equivalent social or political capital within his own party even apart from the presidency. Maybe I am overemphasizing its importance or underestimating Romney's influence.


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