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December 26, 2012 8:08 AM Money and the 2012 Elections

By Andrew Gelman

Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen write:

Only hours after polls closed on Election Day, a revisionist wave began building that downplayed the role of big money. Analysts asked if the costly Republican failure to retake the White House and a handful of Senate reverses meant that all the handwringing about the torrent of political money was misplaced …
Even the Sunlight Foundation, which, along with the Center for Responsible Politics, has probably done as much as any institution to deepen awareness of how money corrupts American democracy, joined the parade. Its assessment of “How Much Did Money Really Matter in 2012?” investigated “the emerging post-campaign narratives” according to which “all the outside money (more than $1.3 billion) that poured into the 2012 election didn’t buy much in the way of victories.” Its conclusion was that “the story holds up: we can find no statistically observable relationship between the outside spending and the likelihood of victory.”

But Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen argue otherwise:

Let’s take the House elections first … 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… . 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.

They show some graphs indicating that Republicans spent almost twice as much as Democrats in those swing seats. I’d be interested in comparable comparisons for earlier years, since they’re claiming that 2012 is different. Also I’d like to see comparable graphs for Democrats who are running for reelection, as I’d assume that incumbents generally have more money than challengers. Such comparisons would strengthen their argument (or dilute it, depending on how the data turn out).

They continue:

What about the presidential race? … the Romney camp spent perhaps $1.51 billion, while Obama’s campaign just a shade less—$1.45 billion … across the entire roster of contributions reported to the FEC (i.e., those summing to $200 or more), contributions adding up to less than $250 supplied barely 1 percent of the [Obama] campaign’s funds.

Their conclusion on the presidential campaign:

There is nothing paradoxical about the Republican loss. One campaign funded largely by the super-rich lost to another just about as affluently funded… . Big Money’s most significant impact on politics is certainly not to deliver elections to the highest bidders. Instead it is to cement parties, candidates, and campaigns into the narrow range of issues that are acceptable to big donors.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.