Sustained Outrage

Money vs. incumbency: Advantage money

Right around the primary, I wrote about a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics called The Role of Money and Incumbency in 2007-2008 State Elections. That study concluded that when an incumbent also enjoyed a fundraising advantage, they won 96 percent of the time. That’s a pretty big hurdle for challengers to overcome.

But what happens when the money advantage changes sides?

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, third parties can now spend money on behalf of candidates without limit, and without having to disclose the true origin of the money. (You can read previous coverage here.) And spend they did, as this report, Outside Job, from Public Citizen points out.

In the 2010 general election, where a Congressional seat was not won by the party that previously held it, third parties spent more on the winner than on the loser 78 percent of the time.

Winning candidates in elections in which power changed hands were aided by average spending of $764,326 by independent groups, while losing candidates were aided by average spending of $273,268, a ratio of nearly 2.8 to 1. The analysis deemed outside spending as aiding candidates if it either praised them or criticized their opponents. It does not include outside spending for primaries.

To be clear, not all of the elections cited involved an incumbent. For example, in West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, incumbent Democrat Rep. Alan Mollohan lost in the primary, so the contest between Republican David McKinley and Democrat Mike Oliverio was for an open seat. The study includes the race because the seat changed hands as McKinley, aided by $931,700 in outside spending, beat out Oliverio, who didn’t garner any outside spending, according to the study.

(Public Citizen’s hastily assembled list, published on Nov. 3 before all the elections were decided, differs slightly from this accounting from Politico, which puts the total at 68.  It’s not clear why Politico didn’t include open Senate seats that used to belong to Democrats, including Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, that were won by Republicans on Nov. 2.)

Also, the earlier study focused on state legislators, not members of Congress, where much more money is in play. And Public Citizen’s study doesn’t look at overall spending, it only looks at third-party spending. It’s possible that some of the losing candidates actually outspent the winners when candidates’ own funding is added in.

But the quick takeaway from Nov. 2 is that outside parties are likely to keep pouring lots of cash into elections because, well, it seems to be pretty effective.

And to figure out how they spent it, we need look no further than Nielsen’s latest numbers, which indicate that more political ads aired in October 2010, 1.48 million, than in October 2008, when 1.41 million ads ran. It’s pretty staggering to think that more ads aired in the run-up to a midterm than during a presidential election, but that’s where we are.

According to Nielsen’s figures, the Charleston-Huntington market, which is the 65th biggest in the country, ran 11,457 political ads out of 77,291 total ads, or 14.82 percent. In terms of percentage of political ads aired, Charleston-Huntington ranked 33rd in the nation in October 2010. In terms of total political ads aired last month, Charleston-Huntington ranked 50th, according to Nielsen, five spots above New York, the biggest TV market in the country.

For those of you scoring at home, that’s almost 370 political ads a day in Charleston-Huntington, or one every four minutes or so.