After 32 days of hearings and expenditures of $2.6 million, the closing gavel has
finally sounded on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s investigation of
campaign financing abuses.
Unfortunately, amidst all the frenzy, one of the most important questions was never
asked: just what difference does money make in Congressional 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 — it surprisingly may be: "not
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 a single
one represents a district where Bill Clinton won at least 50% of 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 margin 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 race in 1992 and 1996, indicating that
voters tend to not only be consistent within elections, but between elections.
Given this voter consistency and the fact that most districts are not "level
playing fields," it is clear that most elections are decided during the decennial
redistricting – or shall we say, "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, but 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% of incumbents have
won re-election in every year since 1974 and why only two out of 171 incumbents first
elected before 1990 were defeated in 1996 — and why 162 won by comfortable margins of at
The simple truth is that campaign contributors respond to high incumbent re-election
rates more than they cause them. Most big donors seek to buy influence, not elections. No
matter what had happened with the hearings on campaign finance reform, or even hoped-for
reforms like McCain-Feingold, come November 1998 we will again have mostly noncompetitive
elections in one party districts where voters have little choice but to ratify the
selection made by redistricting committees. A disproportionate amount of money will
continue to be spent on the small number of undecided swing voters that decide the small
number of close races in swing districts.
The Center’s findings are reassuring for those who believe in the American voter: most
voters are grounded in a political philosophy that leads them 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. Demography is destiny.
A key lesson for campaign finance reformers is that they should focus more energy on
campaign financing in party primaries, where money indeed has a major impact because
voters lack the guide of partisan labels — and where parties have the power to set new
internal rules immediately without blaming each other for the failure of legislation.
Those concerned about the corruptive influence of money on the governing process have all
the more reason to expose the many special interests who donate huge sums to candidates
they know will win.
A final lesson may be more disconcerting to some traditional reformers. 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, we will need to rethink our exclusive use of non-competitive
single-seat "winner take all" districts. Most well-established democracies long
ago made the switch to multi-seat proportional representation systems, which generally
result in multiparty democracy where voters have more choice and higher voter turnouts,
and where diverse political perspectives have a greater chance of winning representation,
regardless of how much money they spend.
Any future attempts at reforming our campaign financing practices must give serious
consideration to such reforms if they are to dig deep to the root of what ails American
Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington,
D.C. Steven Hill is the Center’s west coast director.