Money Doesn't Buy Love - and Perhaps Not Most Elections

Article excerpt

With nearly $3 billion spent on federal elections in 1996 and controversies over foreign donors, soft money spending, and the Lincoln bedroom, the congressional hearings on campaign financing have much to cover. Unfortunately, one of the most important questions has yet to be investigated: just what difference does money make in elections? Given the dollars spent and the time candidates spend raising them, the answer might seem obvious. But in fact--at least for general elections in November--the answer surprisingly may be "not much."

The Center for Voting and Democracy recently released "Monopoly Politics," a comprehensive analysis of U.S. House elections. In reviewing open seat elections without incumbents--perhaps the best measure of money's impact--the center found a far stronger correlation between the party of the winning candidate and how that district voted in the presidential race than relative campaign spending. Over one-third of Republican winners in open seat races in 1996 were outspent by Democrats. But not one represents a district where Bill Clinton won at least 50 percent of the votes cast.

If money were the biggest factor, one would expect that winners spending more money would win by bigger margins. But in open seat districts, the key determinant of victory margins was the presidential vote. Where Bill Clinton ran poorly, Republicans consistently won easily. Where he ran well, Democrats won easily. In districts where Clinton ran close to his national average, nearly every race was close. These results occurred no matter how much money candidates spent.

The close correlation between the presidential vote and party control continues in most House districts; winners and their victory margins more strongly correlate with whether that district leans Democratic or Republican than with how much money is spent. And most districts were very consistent in the presidential races in 1992 and 1996, indicating that voters tend to be consistent not only within elections but between elections.

Given this voter consistency and the fact that most districts are not level playing fields, most elections are decided during the decennial redistricting (or "incumbent protection") process--that is, when Democrats and Republicans blatantly carve up the political map to protect incumbents, creating noncompetitive districts "safe" from changing parties.

Gerrymandering has been with us since the early 1800s; however, in today's computer era the capacity of legislators to gerrymander their districts using precise census data and polling has increased significantly. This helps explain why over 90 percent of incumbents have won reelection in every year since 1974. why only two out of 171 incumbents first elected before 1990 were defeated in 1996, and why 162 of them won by comfortable margins of at least 10 percent. …