by Sylvia Smith - Washington Editor
WASHINGTON - "Money decides" is almost universally accepted as the predictor of who gets into Congress. The reasons seem obvious: TV ads are wildly expensive; the candidate with the most money can buy the most air time; and the more voters are bombarded with good news about one candidate and bad news about another, the more they will vote for the Ivory Snow candidate.
Not so, says a group that has studied the outcome of House elections.
The Center for Voting and Democracy, in fact, says money is a minor factor in predicting who will win and who will lose. "Demography is destiny," says the group's executive director, Robert Richie.
Richie is comfortable in predicting - 15 months before next year's elections, before the first campaign ad is made, before the first debate is staged - which parties will win in 360 congressional races. (He's less sure of himself in races where the incumbent is retiring because there's less information to go on.) His crystal ball is actually nothing more complicated than an analysis of past elections.
The winner in any congressional district is better predicted by the partisan nature of the voters than by which candidate has more cash, Richie says.
Want to know who will win next year when Rep. Mark Souder goes up against whomever emerges as the Democratic nominee in northeast Indiana? Look at what the region's voters did in the 1996 presidential election, Richie says.
President Clinton got 36 percent of the vote in northeast Indiana, 13 percentage points less than Clinton's national 49 percent. To Richie, that means the bulk of voters in the 4th District are more inclined to support a Republican than a Democrat.
With that as a backdrop, Richie looked at Souder's past performance: He won with 55 percent of the vote in 1994 and with 58 percent of the vote in 1996.
Barring a scandal, those two indicators add up to a landslide for Souder in 1998, Richie predicts.
It's entirely possible that Souder will collect more money than his Democratic opponent, which would encourage the money-decides theory. But Richie suggests that money flows to the more likely winner, not that money makes a candidate a more likely winner.
Campaign donors respond to "safe" seats more than they cause them, Richie contends. The checks they write are more an effort to influence future legislation than to affect elections.
Indiana has 10 congressional districts, and Richie predicts that five incumbents will win re-election in a landslide; one incumbent will win comfortably; three incumbents are vulnerable; and the "open" seat - in which an incumbent is retiring - will probably be won by a Republican.
"Most U.S. House seats are not competitive for one simple reason: a clear majority of voters in a given district prefer one party's political philosophy over that of the other party. They vote a certain way in the presidential race, and most of them vote the same way in the House race regardless of how much money is spent," Richie's analysis says. "Even if the candidate is an unknown with few resources, a high percentage of a party's supporters usually will support that candidate."
Hold on, you might say. If northeast Indiana is so Republican, why did a Democrats - Jill Long - win three elections in a row?
Under the Richie formula, Long won primarily by changing herself into a Republican. She acted and often voted like a Republican, and for a time that satisfied the voters.
But given the 4th District's voting pattern, Richie thinks Souder is a shoo-in next year. But before you bemoan the lack of competition, consider that there often is competition in a district where the November outcome is a foregone conclusion. It's in the primary.
That helps explain why 15 people ran in the GOP '96 primary to have the chance to be the Republican nominee in the 7th District. Everyone knew that the candidate who won the primary would win in November. That's why the GOP contenders spent as much money in the spring race as most candidates spend for a fall campaign.
Richie's organization uses this analysis to push several ideas: that reform of the campaign finance system should include primaries; that there's too much power invested in the people who draw congressional district lines; and that we'd be better off with proportional representation (in which groups of voters are represented in the legislature in proportion to the number of votes they cast).
You don't have to buy into any of those ideas to find this analysis interesting. To read it in its entirety on the Internet, go to: http://www.igc.org/cvd/ and click on to "Monopoly Politics. Why Demography is Destiny in Most Congressional Elections ... and What it Means for Political Reform."
Sylvia Smith is The Journal Gazette's Washington editor.