The Democrats Have An Impressive Fundraising Edge, But It Doesn't Guarantee a Midterm Wave
The humorist Will Rogers once famously remarked that “politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Indeed, as the chart below showing presidential election spending since 1960 proves, even before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, American politics had become a huge industry. Accounting for inflation, population growth, and income growth, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole spent in 1996 a fraction of what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush spent just a few years later:
While many individuals on both sides of the aisle bemoan the staggering influx of money into the political system, some pundits have offered that it can serve one useful purpose. In a world where traditional polling methods are increasingly less dependable than they once were, fundraising data can provide an objective lens into the excitement behind a particular candidate or party. And, with second quarter campaign fundraising data now rolling in, if money is really is energy (and we’ll explore that question later in this column, but, spoiler alert, the chart above foreshadows the answer), then the Democrats continue to have more of it than the Republicans.
Through May 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the campaign arm of the House Democrats – had raised about $35 million more this election cycle than their opposites, the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is currently besting the National Republican Senatorial Committee by about $12 million.
Fundraising in individual congressional races also may not portend well for Republicans. According to CNN, in the second quarter of 2018:
In 72 of the 95 House races considered competitive – that’s more than 75 percent – the leading Democrat outraised the leading Republican. This analysis includes about 40 districts currently held by Republican incumbents.
Of CNN’s 21 toss-up races (the most competitive in the country), Democrats held the fundraising advantage in 17 contests (81 percent).
Democrats are also catching up in districts generally thought to be trending toward the Republican column. In 35 of the 52 (67 percent) races rated likely or leaning Republican, the leading Democratic candidate outraised the leading Republican candidate.
And, as you might expect, Republicans in blue states appear to be having the most trouble raising money. In California, at least three House GOP incumbents were outraised in the second quarter by their top Democratic challenger. Across the country in the Garden State, the five of the state’s 12 congressional seats are competitive. The GOP currently holds four of those seats. In those races, the Democratic challengers raised $4.091 million, three times more than the top Republican candidates.
New Jersey also reveals the intense energy in favor of female Democratic candidates. In the 11th congressional district, Mikie Sherill is vying for a seat where the incumbent Republican is retiring. Sherrill raised an astonishing $1.9 million in the second quarter. Her top GOP opponent raised just $340,000. The Democratic energy is even creeping into New Jersey districts thought to be safe for Republicans. The state’s 4th congressional district isn’t listed competitive, but Democratic challenger Josh Welle raised twice as much as sitting Rep. Chris Smith (R) in the second quarter.
If Democrats can turn money into results in districts like Smith’s, it could be a marquee mid-term election for the party in November.
So the Democrats’ second quarter financial haul is unquestionably impressive, but will it translate into results at the ballot box? In other words, does money always equal energy?
The simple answer is: no.
We learned that answer this election cycle by watching Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) lose his primary after spending 18 times what his 29-year-old challenger spent. We learned it in late 2015 and early 2016 when we watched Jeb Bush ($1 million more), Ben Carson ($27 million more), Ted Cruz ($22.5 million more), and Marco Rubio ($4 million more) outspend Donald Trump when they were running against him in the GOP primary.
And, of course, we were taught this lesson in November 2016 when, according to Bloomberg, Trump “won the presidency despite having raised less than any major party presidential nominee since John McCain in 2008, the last to accept federal funds to pay for his general election contest.” Hillary Clinton raised nearly $1.2 billion to Trump’s less than $650 million.
In 2010, Democrats raised about a quarter billion dollars more than Republicans. That fall, the GOP took a net total of 63 House seats and six Senate seats away from Democrats in what was the party’s worst electoral performance since 1938.
While we can glean some information from fundraising data about the exuberance of a party or a candidate’s base, this data must still need to be viewed in the context of polling data. AsGallup explained after the GOP’s 2010 drubbing of Democrats, Americans’ feelings about the president, the direction of the country, and the political parties matters. So does the number of Americans who say they’re excited to vote. So despite all the punditry presuming a Democratic wave this November based on recent fundraising data, remember: just like money alone can’t buy you happiness, history suggests that it also can’t buy you election success.