At The Upshot, Lynn Vavreck reviews new evidence supporting the old but important finding that a dollar given to challengers is worth more than a dollar for incumbents. It’s a story of diminishing returns. Even partisans hesitate to back a candidate they’ve never heard of, so candidate spending to establish name recognition is effective. Moreover, voters are more likely to back a candidate after they learn one or two positive things about him or her, so disseminating information through ads or direct mail is helpful. Spreading negative information about the opposition can be effective, too.

After that, however, campaign spending to persuade voters (as opposed to, say, turning out likely supporters to vote) could well be wasted.

The distribution of contributions in U.S. politics is hugely inefficient. Presidential nominees will raise hundreds of millions of dollars in 2016, almost all of which will be wasted. Diverting $100 million of that spending to House elections and state legislative contests could make a large difference.

Spreading the wealth might enable some seemingly hopeless candidates to make serious runs. Could Democrat Shenna Bellows, armed with an additional $5 million, have waged a competitive contest against incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine? What about Republican Mike McFadden’s quest to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Al Franken in Minnesota? Neither probably had enough money to even get their basic message out. Again, it’s those first dollars, not the last ones, that really matter.

It’s worth remembering these diminishing returns when thinking about campaign-finance or party reforms. But even without reform, individual donors could change things just by targeting their money better. The result would improve the election process and our democracy.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.