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Beware Fundraising Graphs

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

On Monday, Aaron Blake at The Fix presented what they called “the second most important chart of the 2012 election.” The chart graphed fundraising by the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney from January to June of this year. Blake asserted that the chart “paints another potentially grim picture for President Obama, who was outraised by $35 million in June.” The chart also didn’t include any money raised by the super PACs, where Romney has the clear advantage. While there is no doubt that Romney has the clear fundraising advantage in this election, the implicit argument of Blake’s chart – that Obama will be disadvantaged electorally because of lower fundraising levels – is questionable. For example, in a paper that tried to isolate the effect of spending in campaigns, Economist Steve Levitt found:

When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose one percent of the popular vote. So we’re talking about really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote.

Fundraising might (and that’s a big MIGHT) matter for the candidates’ ability to air ads in key states, but the effect of ads on the outcome is still questionable. As John Sides noted yesterday:

Campaign ads can have an effect, even in presidential races.  However, three caveats are important here, which speak to how one should follow the ads.  First, the effect of ads seems to emerge when one side is outspending the other by a significant margin.  How much of a margin is hard to say; let’s take 2-1 as a rough estimate, which corresponds to the apparently consequential imbalance in Bush and Gore ads in battleground states right before the 2000 election.  I’m not sure either Romney or Obama will muster that kind of advantage, even with the independent spending taken into account.  TBD.

Second, the effect of ads seems to dissipate quickly, even within a week (see point #3).  So you may not need to think about the effects of ads for another 3+ months.   In fact, let’s shout that: FOR ANOTHER 3+ MONTHS.  This notion that you have to advertise early to “define” the candidate or the opposition is folklore.  Maybe there is some truth to that, but the truly rigorous studies have not identified such an effect, but have identified rapid decay.

Third, whether any effect of ads actually affects the outcome is a real question.  It may be that the net effect of ads only slightly widens the winner’s margin of victory, without actually making the difference between winning and losing.

As I have argued previously on RTT, one of the keys to a successful campaign is the candidates’ ability to assemble and mobilize a winning coalition of interest groups and voters. The goal of fundraising should be to support these efforts, and candidate success will depend more upon organizing than fundraising alone. I would assert that the Obama campaign has so far been unable to repeat its successful online and on-the-ground grassroots organization of the 2008 campaign, at least in part because of the embrace of President Obama and his campaign of a more partisan approach since the 2010 election. And this may matter more than being out-fundraised by Romney. Second, political science studies have shown that while campaigns help voters learn about the economy or the party positions, campaigns matter only under certain conditions. For example, Kevin Arceneaux (gated article) has argued that some voters learn more from campaigns than others. Arceneauz shows that campaigns matter more for voters with low political sophistication and who receive information from the parties. Furthermore, voters draw more on their long-standing political identities, including party identification, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as repeated political science studies have demonstrated, how voters feel about the state of the economy is likely to be the greatest predictor of who wins the White House come November because it underlies voter evaluations of the candidates. 

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