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Revealed: Why the Pundits Are Wrong About Big Money and the 2012 Elections

One campaign funded largely by the super-rich lost to another funded by same, and money mattered big-time in House elections.

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In 2012, across the House as a whole, they certainly were. As Figure 1 shows, a virtual straight line relationship existed between Democratic candidates’ shares of total political money and their showing against their Republican opponents. (Our figure reflects formal campaign expenditures and cash hoards through October 17, plus Super Pac and independent expenditures reported as of Nov. 9. We exclude a handful of races in which candidates in the same party competed with one another. A very few races in which the FEC data are likely incomplete are included. None of these fine points matter.)

We would be the first to caution against rushing to the judgment that this striking figure is the whole picture. The relationship between levels of money and winning is for sure at least partly reciprocal (“endogenous” in social science jargon). For example, it is obvious that many donors will hesitate to pour money into races in which there is little chance of success. The same probably is not true of likely winners or, as we will see below, candidates running unopposed – analysts need to recognize auctions when they see them and not blithely assume that most money rains down on toss up races. Lots of other, unmeasured influences could also be at work, such as individual representatives’ committee slots, seniority, or his or her status within the national party and House leadership.

There is also gerrymandering to consider, though most discussions of that phenomenon in 2012 exaggerate its importance by failing to recognize that Democratic votes tend to clump more tightly in specific areas, thus confusing simple votes/seats calculations.

Other ways of breaking down the data confirm the impression that money was important. We are dubious about popular lists of “close elections”; we suspect many are affected by reports of campaign contributions. But we did examine spending differences between Democrats and Republicans in two types of races that should have had better than average chances of being winnable by both parties in 2012. The first involves districts in which a new Republican candidate won for the first time in the 2010 landslide; the other is the smaller subset of those races in which the GOP winner either ousted an incumbent Democrat or defeated a Democrat running in an “open seat” race. Both kinds of districts show heavy Republican advantages in average total spending compared to their Democratic opponents. (See Figures 2 and 3.) Walter Dean Burnham has impressed upon us 2012’s singular character in the long sweep of American history. Typically a party that takes losses on the scale the Democrats did in the House elections of 2010 bounces back fairly strongly in the next election. We think money goes a long way to explain why that didn’t happen this time.

A final piece of evidence about big money’s role in the House is also worth mentioning, especially considering the current furor over the fiscal cliff. GOP House Speaker John Boehner, running unopposed for reelection, raked in almost $21 million dollars in contributions to his campaign committee. (Our figures, like those above for the rest of Congress, do not include contributions to congressional leadership PACs, which we have not yet had time to examine. Boehner’s leadership PAC, though, took in just under $3.7 million dollars more. Boehner also has close ties to a Super Pac that received $2.5 million from Chevron late in the campaign.

The campaign committee of that other paladin of low taxes on the 1 percent, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, took in some $7.6 million, with another $5.4 million going to his leadership PAC. By contrast, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader, raised $2.3 million for her own campaign (less than what Chevron alone donated to the Boehner Super Pac) and slightly over $1.1 million for her leadership Pac.