Following the Money: Congress 2018

Money Bag. Photo By Barbara Lock [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Barbara Lock

There used to be an immutable law about campaign finances: more money always beats less money, unless candidates self-fund, which rarely works out well. WOW! Things have changed!

There are still some rules about campaign money that hold true. First, if, as a candidate, you can get a local voter to give you money, even $5, they are going to vote for you because they’re invested in you. Granted, if you do something incredibly stupid, that could change, although it may not. For example, there are people who fund candidates who still vote for said candidate even if the election falls between conviction and sentencing. (I am not making this up!) Contrary, if you, the candidate, sleep with a donor’s underage child that donor probably will withdraw support, although sadly, not always. (Again, not making this up!)

The second rule is that if you cannot, as a campaign, raise a certain amount of money, you cannot be competitive. This amount differs based on the level of the election, and the cost of the media market, but all campaigns need to be able to fund a field operation at the very least. It’s pretty cheap to fund a school board operation: you need database access, some mailers/door lit, and gas for the car to get to events. You can do that for less than a thousand dollars in most places. However, once you get to a state or Federal position, you need a paid campaign manager, likely a paid field person (both with legit skills), an office, advertising funds, and it goes on from there: in an expensive media market you’re looking at tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, to even more. Basically, you need enough money to run a credible, professional campaign.

The Q1 numbers are out, and you can see them here for all US Congressional candidates. Right now, these dollar amounts are funding primaries in all but Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana. Winning a primary will certainly bring in more funds so Q2 numbers will look much different.

In reviewing the numbers, it is interesting that in some races, challengers have raised a lot more money than the incumbents. In addition, a lot of Democratic candidates have outraised Republicans in races where the incumbent Republican has declined to run for re-election. One of the most stark examples of this is the PA 6th, where the incumbent decided to retire. The Democratic candidate, Chrissy Houlahan, has raised close to $2 million, with a little over $1.5 million Cash on Hand (CoH). Meanwhile, the Republican, Greg McCauley, raised $250 (not a misprint) from donations, self-funded to the tune of $5,000, and has a little under $4,000 CoH. (Source) This disparity means that one candidate can buy airtime on TV and radio, and the other cannot. Granted, McCauley is new and will likely end up receiving monies from the party and outside groups after the primary, but it’s a lot of ground to make up. Remember, at this level a lot of funding is raised by candidates themselves dialing for dollars. They also need to attend all sorts of events, and the more time one must spend on the phone later in the campaign cycle, the less time a candidate has to be at said events.

Also in Pennsylvania, in the new CD-1, there are three Democratic candidates in the primary and they will run against a first term incumbent with an incredible amount of name recognition since he holds the seat his brother held before him. The three Democrats are Scott Wallace ($691,877 CoH), Rachel Reddick ($133,794 CoH) and Steve Bacher ($14,961 CoH). The winner of that contest will take on Brian Fitzpatrick whose CoH war chest of $1,391,556 is more than the three Democratic candidates’ monies combined. Both Wallace and Reddick have ads up on television. Reddick’s ad claims that Wallace is not from the county and she is “the” local candidate, while Wallace’s multiple ads promote his positions and endorsements, and in one ad claims that Reddick was a registered Republican until she decided to run for office. That financial discrepancy means that whatever Reddick puts up, Wallace can answer, while the reverse is not currently true. It also means that she can afford local placement, while Wallace can (and has) placed on NCIS, a top-rated national show. Could Reddick pull out a primary win even with the financial disparity? Perhaps, if Bacher drops and endorses her, she gets enough boots on the ground and support from outside groups in putting those boots on the ground, and can overcome the institutional support Wallace has from the County Democratic Committee and the fact that he can stay up on TV from now until the primary.

But here’s a change: sometimes a ton of money doesn’t win. Such was the case last year the GA-6 special election, where Jon Ossoff (D) raised over $30 million dollars to Karen Handel’s (R) $7 million, and lost. This was the most expensive non-presidential race of all time. Why? Because much of his money came from outside the district. While about two thirds of his contributions were small (<$250) the donors were nationwide and part of the issue for voters was “local”. In addition, $15 million was spent by outside groups in anti-Ossoff ads, and that’s a new thing the past several years. (Citizens United was decided in 2010). Outside groups with no donation limits can, if they so desire, provide support in incredible ways.

So, let’s look at California, where things are really different from most other states. In California, they have what’s called “Jungle Primaries” — that means that the top two vote getters proceed to the General irrespective of party affiliation. Yes, that means you can have two Democrats or two Republicans running against one another, as has happened. In the current Senatorial race, the major contenders are Dianne Feinstein (incumbent, $10.3 million CoH) and Kevin de León ($672,000 CoH). This race has the potential to affect Congressional races down ballot. One would think that the monetary disparity would mean that Feinstein is the “obvious” winner, but she did not get the endorsement of the state Democratic Party, and de León has an incredible list of endorsements. He also has the support of many progressives and liberals. His candidacy will bring a lot of supporters to the polls who might have passed on the primary. It’s a known fact that more people vote in generals than primaries, but if there is a compelling candidate in a top tier race, that will encourage more primary voters, who will likely vote the rest of the ballot. Albeit, the number of votes down ballot are often fewer than for the top line.

In California, we will look at the 49th CD, from which Darrel Issa is retiring. There are Four Democrats, eight Republicans, a Libertarian, an independent, a Peace & Freedom Party member and a Green Party member who have filed to run in the district. From a monetary perspective, we can pretty much remove from contention anyone who raised under $20,000 or has less than $1,000 CoH. In the 2016 election, Issa’s race was the closest Congressional race in the country: Issa won with about 1,600 votes and his challenger, Doug Applegate is running again. Of the four Democrats this year, Applegate raised the least amount of money, yet he is ahead in the (very minimal) amount of polling that has been accomplished so far. This is likely attributable to name recognition from the 2016 election. It’s likely that neither of the Senatorial candidates will endorse, but such an endorsement would help the candidate who receives such an endorsement.

In most states, we’d look at money, ground game, and endorsements to come up with a likely victor, but in California, with the Jungle Primary system, it’s possible that none of the Democrats would make it to November. That’s because if there are two very strong Democratic candidates they will split enough of the vote that two strong Republican candidates could conceivably take the winning two slots.

Another issue is that California uses a “randomized alphabet” system to list candidates on their ballots. On the 82nd day before an election, the California Secretary of State conducts a randomized drawing of letters of the alphabet pursuant to California Elections Code section 13112. The resulting order of letters constitutes the “randomized alphabet” to be used for determining the order of candidates’ names on the ballot. This can have an influence on the outcome of an election, so a higher ballot position is advantageous, especially the longer the list.

A lot of voters only know who is running for a top tier position (President, Senator, Governor) and they come into the voting booth with those names in mind. And then they see the rest of the ballot and often don’t know the candidates and are flummoxed by the choice. Higher ballot positions generate more votes with a few exceptions. First, in states where the county of a candidate is designated next to their name for a statewide position, voters often go with their home county. Second, and this is where money comes in, if a candidate can get his/her name out via television, that person is helped immensely by name recognition even if low information voters know nothing else. California case in point: in the 2003 gubernatorial recall/election, there were 135 candidates on the ballot, and Arnold Schwarzenegger won with 48% of the vote, in part due to name recognition.

The conclusion is iffy. Money will surely help in terms of what is necessary for a professional and credible campaign, but that effect is muted by the Jungle Primary system. It’s relatively new, having been barely passed in 2010 and in effect only since 2012. It gives preference to those races with fewer candidates, but too many people want to run for office, which dilutes votes from serious candidates. (And no, just because you can get your name onto the ballot that doesn’t mean you’re a serious candidate.) Thus, in California, which is a Democratic state, Republicans have a built in advantage – they run fewer candidates (since there are fewer Republicans) and can therefore can coalesce better. There is a self-limited factor, especially in California state elections, in that if the elected Republican is out of sync with his/her district, he/she often cannot win re-election once he/she needs to run on an actual record in that position.

A final thought relates to turnout. Turnout has an effect on elections, in general, the higher the turnout, the better Democratic candidates do, and the lower the turnout, the better Republican candidates do. Recently, Muhlenberg posted a poll wherein 77% of Pennsylvania voters indicated they planned to vote in the general election this year. Either they were lying, or this will be one for the record books. To find turnout at or above 77% in presidential years, one must go back to the 1800’s. The highest percentage since then was 65.4% in 1908 and so the idea that a higher percentage would vote in an off-year election is specious at best. (Still, here’s hoping.)

This year, for the first time, giant amounts of money are being poured into Voter Registration efforts. Normally, these are small, local initiatives, but Tom Steyer’s NextGen America project is undertaking a massive voter registration and education effort nationwide this summer, centering on college campuses. It will be a lot of money as paid fellowships are being offered, which will get even more people involved in getting new voters registered. In addition, the March for Our Lives/Parkland group (which is also very well funded) is undertaking drives at high schools across America. States are also investing. In New Jersey this week, legislation authorizing automatic Voter Registration (unless someone opts out) was passed and signed, making Jersey one of the 11 states (and DC) who have this process. It now covers a little over 20% of all Americans.

We can only hope that registered voters become informed voters who show up at the polls. To that end, check out Indivisible Chester County’s candidate guide.

VOTE! Bring a friend and a family member!

Elections have consequences!

This article is courtesy of the Democratic Convention Watch.

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