The Big Campaign Story for the Next Few Days

Thomas Ferguson writes about the campaign:

There’s something chilling that haunts these final days: the Ghost of the 2000 Election. . . . for 2012, the scariest thing about 2000 is the evidence that a flood of highly concentrated Republican money in the very last week of that campaign gave G.W. Bush a decisive edge in the battleground states – and that contrary to reports in the national media, there are signs that history may be about to repeat itself.

The little known 2000 story is meticulously laid out in a study by Richard Johnston, Michael G. Hagen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. . . . a natural experiment, in which part of the country was saturated with political money while the rest was only lightly sprinkled.

The outcome was ruinous for Gore. Johnston, Hagen, and Jamieson convincingly show how in non-battleground states, where free media and Gore’s own ads were not overwhelmed by the last minute GOP avalanche, the Vice President preserved his momentum, eventually winning the popular vote. By contrast, in battleground states where the Bush campaign vastly outspent him and the Democrats, Gore’s comeback stalled out. “Where ad volumes – Al Gore’s ad volumes in particular at this point – were mounting, the Democratic candidate held his own for the rest of the month…Where advertising – now overwhelmingly by Bush – was heavy, there was no recovery; indeed in the last week Gore’s share in these places dropped two to three points.”

What about the upcoming election?

This year the gigantic war chests raised and spent by Superpacs have plainly stunned many Americans, making them overwhelmingly receptive to tighter regulation of political money.

Curiously, however, all through the campaign, one commentator after another has derided the idea that big money might be decisive in this election. . . . Some of their skepticism rests, perhaps, on a deep misunderstanding. 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. . . .

Difficulties with the data:

Let’s look further into why the pundits are confused. The major sources of data on political money are the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. . . . both agencies routinely accept seriously incomplete reports and obviously inaccurate or misleading reports. . . . As a result, the true influence that large donors wield in American elections is chronically underestimated. . . . Existing data management tools that try to match these up commonly fail to recognize multitudes of contributions coming from the same sources. In turn that nourishes illusions that small donors play bigger roles in campaigns than they really do. Especially where Democrats are concerned, the myth of small donors is a powerful instrument of miseducation.

What about Obama’s army of small donors?

In 2008, for example, the Obama campaign trumpeted such support. Eventually, many analysts caught on and began to question the claims. We have now reanalyzed the entirety of the FEC and IRS data for 2008. . . . Our best estimate – it is only an estimate – is that donors giving less than $250 represent less than ten percent of the record breaking sums raised by the Obama campaign [and similar numbers for McCain in 2008, as well as Obama in 2012].

What happens next?

Since October 17, the big GOP Superpacs appear to be outspending [Obama’s] Priorities USA on media by at least three to one – perhaps a higher ratio than when Bush buried Gore.

2012 could be different from 2000, though:

It can be reasonably objected that the absolute level of spending in the 2012 presidential race will be far above the paltry $343 million reported for 2000. Perhaps the higher level of expenditures will better anchor voter impressions of Obama. It is also true that Obama is not a Vice President, but President, someone much harder to drown out. But how much will these factors matter? No one can say for sure – no one has any experience with political money on this scale.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

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