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Not About Bribery

I’d like y’all’s opinion of notion that I started noodling with due largely to Jon Bernstein’s commentary on the marginal value of campaign dollars. The idea, obvious enough, is that while an incumbent president’s reelection campaign can raise gazillions of dollars easily enough, it is also that campaign that will find it hardest to actually change votes with its expenditures. Almost everyone in the country knows the President of the United States, or at least they think they do, and neither ten ads nor a thousand will change their minds at this point. At the other end of the scale, it’s hard for a city councilor to raise money for a State Assembly seat’s primary, but since almost none of the voters know anything about either the city counselor or the sitting Assemblyman, there’s a lot of room for persuasion. This is the sort of thing that seems obvious, and is obvious, once you think of it, if you do think of it.

This is not to say that if you are looking to influence policy outcomes, you should never donate to the reelection campaign of an incumbent president. You can make more of a difference in a primary campaign for a seat in your State Assembly, but then if your candidate wins election, that person will only make a little difference in the seat. Individual state legislators are not terribly powerful, and in many states the sum total of a rookie representative’s power is in voting for the Party Leadership. And in general campaigns, people at the top of the tickets (Governors, Presidents, etc) can have coattails, too. So you may want to pick your spot along the spectrum of ambition, where your preferred candidate is already well-known enough to be running for (and have a chance at winning) a somewhat powerful position, and yet a blank enough slate to a good portion of voters to make the campaign money useful in persuasion.

And, of course, if you don’t have a very large chuck of money ready to donate, you can get a bigger effect by aggregating your money together with other people’s money, often through some sort of issue or interest group. The aggregation drawback is that the people need to agree on which candidates to support at which levels, and it’s easier to sell your organization’s donors on somebody they have heard of—and by the rule I was talking about up there, the more the donors have heard of a candidate, the less useful their donations are. And, of course, the more money your group spends on deciding which candidate to donate to, the less you have to donate.

Digression: When I talk about donating money, here, much the same applies to donating time and effort. It’s not quite the same, but much of this stuff applies to phone bank hours, going door-to-door, yard signs and even conversations with acquaintances. Even the concept of aggregating is applicable, although of course there are things that more easily transfer across the country (money, telephone calls) and things that don’t (yard signs, conversations). One of the odd things in 2008 was the way in which people in Connecticut could make campaign calls from their home lines to Indiana and North Carolina through the campaign organization; this kind of donation isn’t entirely lossless but it’s impressively close. Anyway, if the money-in-politics stuff squicks you out, you can substitute phonebank work, if you like, or I suppose there could be some sort of organized Patch-bombing. End Digression.

Are you still with me? Jon wrote about Money and 2012 over at his Plain Blog, and made a point that so far (and we’re a good way through the primary cycle) most of the Big Money has been going along partisan lines, rather than based on issues. I don’t know how accurate this is (he’s not a reporter, and doesn’t go through the reports and make calls the way a reporter does) (or at least the way I imagine a reporter does, and the way some reporters actually do, right?) but it brings up this notion that I am going to finally start asking about. Ready?

Could issue-based groups do some serious work in cross-party primaries to nominate heterodox people? Here’s what I mean: Find an open US House seat that is most likely going to be in the Other Party’s hands after the general election. Find a member of the Other Party who is willing to cross the line on Your Issue. Dump a million dollars into the primary campaign. By the time the general election comes around, you will probably have two candidates who agree with you on your issue, or perhaps three candidates, two of which will split the Other Party’s vote, which is even better. Most likely, though, you now have a U.S. Rep who (a) knows that your organization gave her some absurdly high percentage of her campaign budget for the primary, and (2) already is in sympathy with you on one issue, and is certainly going to be willing to chat with you about your more general concerns.

The problem, as you’ve spotted, is that in today’s political world, it’s not going to be easy to find that person in the Other Party who agrees with you on that one issue, while having that one issue be important enough to raise a million dollars on. Abortion rights, for instance, is almost certainly out now, while this sort of thing was fairly common for those groups a couple of decades ago. Similarly, marriage equality is out at the US House level (tho’ more useful and potentially more doable at the State Senate level in a blue state) as are collective bargaining, climate change preparation and (probably) immigration. My idea is Net Neutrality—I don’t think that enough primary voters in the Other Party care about Net Neutrality to make it impossible to find a plausible Mayor or State Senator who either already supports it or is willing to support it. And it’s a reasonably important issue, which may well see legislation come up soon; it would probably be worth diverting a million dollars of Presidential Re-Election money (of low marginal utility anyway) to change the text of that legislation or have an additional aisle-crosser on it.

And, given the current rules, it should be possible to set all this up behind sufficient dummy screens that the voters in the district won’t know why such-and-such a group supports the candidate in question, while the candidate in question would very much know why. Which would have the desired effect, I would think. I’m guessing the money could be raised, and I think that is probably the best issue for the pin. What do you think?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


"while an incumbent president’s reelection campaign can raise gazillions of dollars easily enough, it is also that campaign that will find it hardest to actually change votes with its expenditures"

I'm not entirely convinced of this. It seems to me that campaign ads are often most effective when they attack opponents; a voter whose mind is made up about the incumbent may still be convincible that the opponent is a scoundrel and not to be trusted or voted for.

Then, too, ads that remind the incumbent's own constituents why they should be fired up can lead to greater engagement and enthusiasm about the campaign, and voters who might have stayed home may instead volunteer for get-out-the-vote drives.

And really, isn't the main point of a lot of campaigning to convince the convincible middle? People who have mixed feelings about your candidate, and who might be persuaded if reminded of the cool things the incumbent has done over the past few years?

Well, and I am not a political scientist, but I am told that the studies show that for incumbent presidents, the "campaign effects" (as distinct from the effect of the economy, the conduct of any war, and other actual policies implemented during the first term) amount to a couple of percentage points at most. Now, a couple of percentage points could be the difference between winning the election and losing it— but it's more likely to be the difference between losing by four points and losing by two.

And it makes some sense that an attack ad about the Other Party's Nominee is going to be less effective if the target, those low-information persuadables, is getting lots of information from lots of sources all the time—constant TV ads by the Other Party and its allies, top-of-the-hour news stories, magazine articles, lawn signs, bumper stickers, social media posts, barber shop conversations, late night television host monologues. Not that the incumbent should jump in to be part of that, as big a part as possible, but even as big a part as possible will be a fairly small share.

I'm not sure I told this story: when Mitt Romney was talking with MassPols about running for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, he was toldthat just by putting his name on the ballot, and having that name not be Kennedy, he would get 40% of the vote. If he ran a competent campaign, he would get 45% of the vote. If he put ten million dollars into the campaign (at the time an absurd sum for a Senate race) he could get 47%. If he put a hundred million dollars in, he could get 48%.

I think that the incumbent president is a lot like that, only if times are bad, the floor is 47% and a competent campaign should get 52%.


The state of the economy, how we're doing in foreign occupations, and the success and popularity of policies are all important driving factors in a national election. And people's opinions on all of them are malleable.

Low-information voters, and even medium-information and high-information voters, get their information about the world from somewhere. Campaign commercials can be one of those sources. But campaign commercials can also affect what the media talks about and how they talk about it, thereby affecting voters who use the media as sources. Finally, campaign commercials provide talking points and reference points to people who talk about those issues, on the off chance that those people will talk to others outside their political demographic.

Who's your trusted source for how the war in Afghanistan is going, and whether you should even care? No, not you personally, but the "you" that is the convincible middle? Did the auto bailout happen? Who proposed it? Who benefited from it? Did we make money, lose money, or just give free cars to terrorists and urbanites? Why am I even hearing about the auto bailout right now almost every day? What's keeping it at the top of my mind? I'm pretty sure that started with a SuperBowl commercial, because I hadn't heard anything about it in months before then. And since I don't have an eidetic memory, you can probably convince me that Clint Eastwood actually uttered the line "Thank you, President Obama, for saving our jobs" during that commercial. He didn't, but it sure felt and behaved like a brilliant campaign commercial.

People's opinions are malleable; their votes on incumbent presidents, not so much. That's what the studies say, and I find it very plausible. There's something well under 10% of the vote that could still go one way or another, and there's no reason to think that $150 million will do a much better job of persuading those people than $100 million, or $75 million. That's what the data show, and pretty persuasively.

Now, I'm not saying that money/ads/campaign are useless--if you can't make a halfway decent campaign, you're giving up a bunch of voters. And even between two campaigns that are both competent, there will be a benefit to running a better one. But in the spectrum of few-votes-changed to lots, a presidential re-election campaign is going to be holding down the bottom end. Plus, of course, a presidential re-election campaign is going to raise a bunch of money anyway, so most people thinking about donations don't have to worry about the campaign being truly ill-funded. Unlike, for instance, the primary campaign of a moderate-ish House candidate in the Other Party.


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