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“Nuclear Whac-a-Mole”?

- November 4, 2010

Another important question to emerge from Tuesday’s results: what was the effect of all that independent spending? There was some evidence that Democrats were ahead in direct spending by candidates, but that Republicans made up for that deficit with spending by outside groups (see “here”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/27/us/politics/27money.html?_r=1&hp). Was this “nuclear Whac-a-Mole”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/04/us/politics/04campaign.html?_r=1&hp ? What if those groups had never materialized? Would it have jeopardized the Republican gains?

The short answer is “no.” If we use a basic model to predict the outcome (previous vote, presidential vote, money, and incumbency), and then substitute a measure of spending that doesn’t include the outside expenditures, the difference is two seats…for the Republicans! That is, the Republicans would have done a little better without the outside expenditures. While this is a cute result, the real message (given uncertainty in the estimates, blah, blah) is that the effect of all that outside spending was a big, fat zero.

Note that this analysis assumes outside spending is just as effective as other kinds of spending. So I’m not saying that the independent ads were somehow inept or hit the wrong themes. Rather, it’s more likely that outside spending was more balanced than the media reports implied. The average independent expenditure for Democratic candidates (either for that candidate or against his/her opponent) was about $240,000. The average for Republican candidates? About $225,000. Even if we restrict the analysis to candidates receiving at least a million dollars in outside spending, the average for Republicans was about $1.6M and for Democrats about $1.8M.

Moreover, the money was going into races that were already saturated with the stuff, making it hard to overwhelm the opposition. The median amount of money raised by Democrats who faced at least modest independent spending (>$50,000) was $1.7M. The same number for Republican candidates was $1.3M. This wasn’t David vs. Goliath, it was two Goliaths, beating each other to a pulp.

Now, these numbers don’t include the outside spending by groups registered under the tax code (rather than the FEC), because it’s not possible to pin their spending to specific races. This form of spending might have had a more lopsided benefit for the Republicans. In fact, it may help explain the handful of Republicans victories that our model doesn’t predict. But at most this would amount to about 10 seats out of the 65 that the GOP won from Democrats. Important, but hardly a game changer.