Nate Silver is struggling to understand what it portends that the Democrats have accumulated an unprecedented money advantage in terms of candidate fundraising. He’s worried that his election forecast may be off, and not necessarily by underestimating the Democrats’ chances in the midterms.
It’s obviously not a bad thing for Democrats to be well-funded but the question is whether that’s being factored too heavily into the forecasts. Republicans have a lot of outside groups contributing generously to candidates who don’t have a ton of money to spend themselves, so it’s not safe to assume that Republicans who don’t have a lot of cash on hand are necessarily going to be that badly outspent.
The fact that money is flooding Democrats’ coffers certainly indicates a high level of engagement on the left, but it’s not really showing up in other measurements. When you compare likely-voter versus registered-voter polls, there’s no indication that either party should expect a significant advantage in turnout.
Silver speculates that new online fundraising tools and better fundraising pitches could be making it a lot easier to raise money without it really saying a lot about the quality of candidates or their campaigns, and that could easily lead to the money metric being overvalued in his forecast model.
One thing Silver doesn’t really get into is how this money might be spent down the home stretch. He’s more focused on what the numbers mean right now. Does it mean that the Democrats are more motivated than the polls suggest? Does it mean that he’s tweaking the polls in the wrong direction? Perhaps he’s overrating the incumbency advantage in a cycle where loads of Republican incumbents have a financial disadvantage.
But another question he might ask is a little different. Rather than focusing on whether the polls are right or wrong at the moment or whether his model is making the right adjustments based on fundamentals, perhaps he should be open to the possibility that the surge has not yet fully developed. In this scenario, the Democrats will close very strong and outperform this week’s polls precisely because they have more money to spend in the homestretch. They don’t have to choose between advertisements and field work, for example, but can do plenty of both.
It’s well established that incumbents have a big innate advantage in elections, but we have to wonder how that typically manifests itself. Usually, it means that they have an easy time raising money, that they don’t have to spend it raising their name recognition, that it’s difficult and expensive for challengers to redefine them, that they already have an established and experienced political team, and that at least a plurality of their constituents have already cast a ballot for them at least once.
Most of those advantages seem to be missing or muted in this cycle, which could leave a lot of Republicans struggling with the downsides of incumbency without getting the normal bonuses. Congress is very unpopular and the country is restless and in turmoil, which means that this is likely a change election. Other things being equal, the electorate may be much more inclined than usual to “throw the bums out,” which could be costly for a Democrat or two, but will mainly work to the disadvantage of the GOP.
Silver is right to wonder what the financial numbers mean, because the Dems seem to be raising lots of money irrespective of how talented or attractive or viable their candidates might be, and that means that getting a lot of donations doesn’t really indicate that a particular candidate is doing an especially good job. But it does mean that they won’t have the same disadvantages that challengers normally face.
I don’t know if the Democrats will outperform Silver’s models, because that depends a lot on how he tweaks the top-line results. It’s more realistic, I think, to believe that the Democrats will outperform the polls themselves, or that they’ll use their money in the last weeks to create a turnout advantage that isn’t showing up yet in the polling screens.
It could turn out that the money indicates a lot of passion from the most politically engaged, but it won’t translate into added votes.
One thing is certain, and that’s that the Democrats wouldn’t trade places with the Republicans.