By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
November 3, 1997
After 32 days of hearings and expenditures of $2.6 million, the closing gavel has finally sounded on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's investigation of campaign financing abuses.
Unfortunately, amidst all the frenzy, one of the most important questions was never asked: just what difference does money make in Congressional elections? Given the dollars spent and the time candidates spend raising them, the answer might seem obvious. But in fact -- at least for general elections in November -- it surprisingly may be: "not much."
The Center for Voting and Democracy recently released "Monopoly Politics," a comprehensive analysis of U.S. House elections. In reviewing open seat elections without incumbents -- perhaps the best measure of money's impact -- the Center found a far stronger correlation between the party of the winning candidate and how that district voted in the presidential race than relative campaign spending. Over one-third of Republican winners in open seat races in 1996 were outspent by Democrats. But not a single one represents a district where Bill Clinton won at least 50% of votes cast.
If money were the biggest factor, one would expect that winners spending more money would win by bigger margins. But in open seat districts the key determinant of victory margins was the presidential vote. Where Bill Clinton ran poorly, Republicans consistently won easily. Where he ran well, Democrats won easily. In districts where Clinton ran close to his national average, nearly every race was close. These results occurred no matter how much money candidates spent.
The close correlation between the presidential vote and party control continues in most House districts -- winners and their victory margin more strongly correlate with whether that district leans Democratic or Republican than with how much money is spent. And most districts were very consistent in the presidential race in 1992 and 1996, indicating that voters tend to not only be consistent *within* elections, but *between* elections.
Given this voter consistency and the fact that most districts are not "level playing fields," it is clear that most elections are decided during the decennial redistricting -- or shall we say, "incumbent protection" -- process. That is when Democrats and Republicans blatantly carve up the political map to protect incumbents, creating noncompetitive districts "safe" from changing parties.
Gerrymandering has been with us since the early 1800s, but in today's computer era, the capacity of legislators to gerrymander their districts using precise census data and polling has increased significantly. This helps explain why over 90% of incumbents have won re-election in every year since 1974 and why only two out of 171 incumbents first elected before 1990 were defeated in 1996 -- and why 162 won by comfortable margins of at least 10%.
The simple truth is that campaign contributors respond to high incumbent re-election rates more than they cause them. Most big donors seek to buy influence, not elections. No matter what had happened with the hearings on campaign finance reform, or even hoped-for reforms like McCain-Feingold, come November 1998 we will again have mostly noncompetitive elections in one party districts where voters have little choice but to ratify the selection made by redistricting committees. A disproportionate amount of money will continue to be spent on the small number of undecided swing voters that decide the small number of close races in swing districts.
The Center's findings are reassuring for those who believe in the American voter: most voters are grounded in a political philosophy that leads them to generally prefer one party over the other, no matter what clever campaign ads they see and hear. The underlying partisan views of a district's voters are far more decisive than relative campaign spending. Demography is destiny.
A key lesson for campaign finance reformers is that they should focus more energy on campaign financing in party primaries, where money indeed has a major impact because voters lack the guide of partisan labels -- and where parties have the power to set new internal rules immediately without blaming each other for the failure of legislation. Those concerned about the corruptive influence of money on the governing process have all the more reason to expose the many special interests who donate huge sums to candidates they know will win.
A final lesson may be more disconcerting to some traditional reformers. To create the much-touted level playing field in which most people can cast a meaningful vote, it won't be enough to make elections financially competitive. We will need to consider making the districts themselves more competitive through redistricting reforms.
Or, more fundamentally, we will need to rethink our exclusive use of non-competitive single-seat "winner take all" districts. Most well-established democracies long ago made the switch to multi-seat proportional representation systems, which generally result in multiparty democracy where voters have more choice and higher voter turnouts, and where diverse political perspectives have a greater chance of winning representation, regardless of how much money they spend.
Any future attempts at reforming our campaign financing practices must give serious consideration to such reforms if they are to dig deep to the root of what ails American democracy.
(Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director)