By Rob Richie
This summer's hearings on campaign financing got underway this week. With nearly $3 billion spent on federal elections in 1996 and the controversies over foreign donors, soft money spending and White House fundraising, the hearings have much to cover.
Unfortunately, one of the most important questions will not be asked: just what difference does money make in general elections that pit party nominees against one another? Given how much money is spent and how much time candidates spend raising it, the answer might seem self-evident. But in fact the right answer surprisingly may be "not much."
Consider the presidential race. After all the spending, ads and hoopla, the results were almost a perfect mirror of the 1992 race -- just as predicted by various presidential election models based on such factors as the nation's economic performance. Bill Clinton repeated his victories in 29 states, won two new states and lost three states he won in 1992. His national percentage rose from 43% to 49%, but Bob Dole also improved over George Bush -- both at the expense of Ross Perot, who received less than half of his 1992 percentage.
Looking at U.S. House races, a well-run, well-funded general election campaign probably wins only a handful of percentages points more than a relatively poorly-funded campaign would win in the same district. Those few percentage points mean a lot in close races, and when several close races decide overall control of the House, campaign spending obviously matters. But most races aren't close -- four in five House races were won by more than 10% in 1996 -- and all the money spent in lopsided races has little impact on the outcome.
Some campaign finance reformers might respond with statistics about how nine in ten winners in congressional races outspend their opposition. But the key point - and one that should be an incentive to campaign reformers rather than a disappointment -- is that most money flows to candidates already expected to win. This money buys access and influence, often with entrenched incumbents in positions of great power.
The Center for Voting and Democracy this week will release a comprehensive analysis of U.S. House elections. Some of its most revealing findings are in open seat races. Open seats are perhaps the best measure of money's impact, as no candidate has the advantages of incumbency.
In 1996, Republicans won 29 open House seat races, and the Democrats won 24. The better-funded candidate won a seemingly impressive 75% of races -- 40 out of 53 seats. But there was a stronger correlation: Republicans won 29 of 35 seats where Bill Clinton received a plurality of the vote, but none of the 18 seats in districts where Clinton won more than his 49% national average. There was a 89% correlation (47 of 53 races) between Republicans winning in districts where Clinton ran behind his national average and Democrats winning in districts where he ran ahead of his average.
A House candidate's percentage of the vote is correlated far more strongly to the district's presidential vote than relative campaign spending. Overall, Democratic candidates averaged 50% of the vote in the 51 open seat races with two major party candidates -- and so did Bill Clinton in those districts. The difference between Clinton's percentage and that of the Democratic House candidate was more than 10% in only three races -- both in the south, with two conservative white Democrats running ahead of Clinton.
Looking first at very conservative districts, the Republicans won all 11 open seat districts where Clinton received less than 41% -- hardly surprising, as they hold 78 of 82 seats in such districts. Ten of the districts had candidates from both parties, and the average winning percentage was 62% -- only 1% less than the average anti-Clinton vote in these districts. Nine of the ten Republicans won at least 59% -- higher than the percentage won by all other Republicans in open seat races.
Seven of the ten losing Democrats in these safely Republican districts spent over $250,000, including five who spent over $400,000 and one who nearly doubled the spending of his Republican opponent. Yet the average percentage for these Democrats was exactly the same as that of Clinton in their districts: 38%. The other three Democrats each spent under $104,000 and were outspent by an average of 13 to one. The result? Their average percentage was 30% as compared to Clinton's 34% -- being vastly outspent cost them an average of only 4% of the core Democratic vote.
On the liberal end of the spectrum, the Democrats won all ten seats where Clinton won at least 58% -- Democrats have a whopping 97-1 edge in such districts. Clinton's average percentage in the ten districts was 66% -- exactly the same as the average percentage for winning Democrats. Four of the ten losing Republicans spent more than $400,000; their Democratic opponents won an average of 58%, just below Clinton's average of 59% in their districts. Another four Republicans spent less than $100,000; their opponents won an average of 74% as compared to Clinton's average of 75% -- exactly the same relative performance as the high-spending Republicans.
The Center's findings are reassuring for those who believe in the American voter: most voters have enough of a political philosophy 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.
A lesson for campaign finance reformers concerned about electoral outcomes is that they should focus more energy on campaign financing in party primaries, where money indeed has a major impact because voters do not have the guide of partisan labels. Those concerned about the corruptive influence of money on the governing process have all the more reason to be wary of the many special interests who donate huge sums to candidates they know will win.
A final lesson may be more disconcerting to traditionalists. 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, through rethinking our exclusive reliance on our exclusive reliance on winner-take-all elections that consign the great majority of voters to irrelevance -- a condition that is a major reason for our disgracefully low voter turnout.
(Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C.)
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