Some elections can’t be bought

I recently interviewed Democratic Party fundraiser and lobbying Anthony Podesta; you can see his comments in the video above. In an era when many political observers, particularly Democrats, bemoan the influence of money in politics, someone who the kind of job Podesta gets a bad rap, but to his credit, he stands by his work and defends what he does. He also has a keener sense than many of the limits to the power that money can exert in politics:

People are smarter than we give them credit for. They don’t sit around and vote for whoever spent the most money or raised the most money; they actually take the measure of presidential candidates. Money can be important in a race for Congress where the only thing people… where people don’t know as much as they do about the president. The saturation coverage of presidential campaigns is such that people will get their information in a multitude of ways, from social media to the old-style broadcast televison.

Podesta’s take comes with its own biases; I expect he neither wants to pitch himself as someone able to usurp the democratic process, but nor would he want to suggest that people who write cheques for candidates he has worked for have wasted their money. Nevertheless, what he’s saying here is exactly right.

We give too much weight to the ability of the ultra-wealthy to sway high profile political races. In a presidential contest, both sides are spending huge amounts of money, and their efforts tend only to neutralise any advantage the other might have gained. What’s more, the presidential race is played out over such a large timeframe, and receives so much attention from the media, that it is immensely difficult for advertisers to shift voters’ views on a candidate. By the end of October of 2012, anyone who was going to vote had a pretty established set of opinions about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. A few extra ads weren’t going to convince an Obama supporter she’d be better off with Romney, or vice-versa.

And that’s exactly what Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley say in an excellent piece debunking the myths of 2016:

Despite the mountain of cash that will be spent on campaign activities, those dollars are unlikely to decisively alter the outcome of the 2016 general election. Without question, the increasingly oligarchical nature of American campaign financing is troubling, but the presidential outcome itself won’t be determined by the whims of mega-donors. The polarized American electorate and the partisan nature of the money chase ensure it.


So what impact will all that campaign money actually have?

If invested heavily in voter contact, cash can help a campaign better turn out its voters, since the lion’s share of the electorate is already locked-in. But donors often prefer their money go to something they can see and hear in their own homes, TV advertising, despite the fact the ads’ effect on voters is short-lived.

As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck showed in The Gamble, a useful recap of what actually happened in 2012, if one side had a serious advertising advantage on a single day, that candidate could increase his or her vote share as much as four points. But that kind of advertising edge very rarely occurred, even during Mitt Romney’s ad blitz in the final week of the campaign. And the boost from the ad imbalance lasted only about a day.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the distorting effect of money in politics, but it does mean we’re worrying about the wrong thing if we think the Koch Brothers or Warren Buffett are going to steal the White House for their preferred candidate. Where money is a problem is — just like Anthony Podesta told me — in lower profile races, like House or state and county-level contests. These receive far less coverage than national races, and undecided voters are far more reliant on other sources of information, including advertising. A rich and determined benefactor could really skew the results of an obscure House race if he puts his mind to it.

Fundraising also takes up time politicians could be doing more useful things — like listening to constituents who aren’t writing them cheques, learning about the issues, or doing the actual hard work of legislating. Politicians themselves hate doing it, even though they feel like they rely on it.

American politics would get much better with campaign finance reform that restricted the amount of money rich people could pour into politics and the amount a successful candidate feels like she needs to raise to win. But the reason isn’t because a handful of billionaires will decide who the next president will be. That will be down to the American people.


Did Watergate break bipartisan America?


I’ve had the above diagram illustrating the increasing polarisation in the US House for a good few weeks now without finding anything particularly useful to say about it: it’s clear and attractively presented, sure, but as Christopher Ingraham, who shared it at Wonkblog, says, it’s nothing we didn’t already know. He explains how it works:

[A group of researchers published in journal PLOS One have] drawn dots for each representative, and lines connecting pairs of representatives who vote together a given number of times. Finally, the dots for each representative are placed according to how frequently the Representatives vote together overall.

There are a few times in recent American political history that pundits point to as decisive in the polarisation of the parties in Congress. There’s the 1987 fight over Robert Bork’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court. The scorched earth tactics of the 1994 class of Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. The introduction of the informal “Hastert Rule” under the speakership of Dennis Haster in the early 2000s. The series of George W. Bush judicial nominees filibustered by the Democratic Senate minority in 2005. The 60-vote Senate, whereby cloture votes are required for practically any action to go ahead, as established by Mitch McConnell in 2009. As the chart above shows, this history coincides with increasing distance between the parties and less cooperation on votes.

Yet I think it also suggests an earlier year as a decisive break of the cross-party cooperation of the 1950s and 1960s: 1975, when the 94th Congress convened. This was the Congress of the Watergate Babies, the wave of Democrats ushered in after voters turned against the party of Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace in August 1974.

That Watergate should usher in a new era of polarisation isn’t entirely expected: both Democrats and Republicans turned against Nixon during the Watergate hearings, and it was the President’s failure to keep Republicans on side that truly made his administration untenable. But that didn’t stop a public disgusted by the corruption coming out of the White House from punishing the party who had back Nixon’s bid for office.

The result? The wide spread of blue and red dots connected by smears of grey in the 1973 graph turns into a big cloud of blue in 1975 with a small clump of red. That makes sense: the Republicans who survived the post-Watergate bloodbath would have been the ones in the safest seats — and with the party’s growing conservatism, these would have been the in the most right-leaning districts. The size and density of the blue and red clumps has swelled and shrunk since, but the mish-mash of the pre-1975 years never returned. (Though note how, once again, there was another big separation in 1993 and 1995, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated and when Republicans took over Congress respectively.

Watergate’s winnowing of Republican moderates isn’t the entire story; Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, for instance, describes how conservatives solidified their hold over the party during the Ford presidency and the subsequent 1976 presidential primary. But the PLOS One diagram suggests that Watergate helped push the parties farther apart. Not to conflate correlation with causation, but here’s the result:

What’s happened? In large part, the disappearance of moderate-to-liberal Republicans (mainly in the Northeast) and conservative Democrats (primarily in the South). Since the 1970s, the congressional parties have sorted themselves both ideologically and geographically. The combined House delegation of the six New England states, for instance, went from 15 Democrats and 10 Republicans in 1973-74 to 20 Democrats and two Republicans in 2011–12. In the South the combined House delegation essentially switched positions: from 91 Democrats and 42 Republicans in 1973-74 to 107 Republicans and 47 Democrats in 2011–12.