Is There a Smarter Way for Democratic Candidates to Spend Their Gobs of Money?

I took my own personal theory of how congressional campaigns should be spending their bounty to several political scientists. They were not impressed.

Jamie Harrison, Sarah Gideon, Amy McGrath and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez on flatscreen TVs.
(clockwise from top) Jamie Harrison, Sarah Gideon, Amy McGrath and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by DNCC via Getty Images, Sarah Rice/Getty Images, Jon Cherry/Getty Images, and IgorNelson/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Earlier this month, South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison broke the all-time fundraising record for a U.S. Senate candidate. He pulled in $57 million in the third quarter of 2020 for his campaign against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the long-serving incumbent, who raised $28 million in the same period.

To put Harrison’s haul in perspective: The previous Senate record for fundraising in a single quarter was set in Texas by then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the third quarter of 2018. O’Rourke raised $38 million, about $19 million less than Harrison for a race in a state whose voting population is more than five times the size of South Carolina’s.

Make no mistake, Harrison will need a lot of money to win this race. The two candidates are effectively tied in the polls, but South Carolina’s voting behavior is pretty inelastic, and the state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1998. Plus, Trump is outperforming Graham in the polls, suggesting that some of the senator’s discontents don’t like him because he used to criticize Trump and isn’t conservative enough for their taste. Those voters aren’t likely to be won over by Harrison at the polls. (Harrison is trying to get them to vote for a further-right Constitution Party candidate who’s already dropped out of the race and endorsed Graham but still appears on the ballot.)

When the Harrison campaign announced its record-shattering windfall, some analysts believed the candidate might have more money than he could ever hope to productively spend in the weeks before the election, especially in South Carolina’s relatively cheap media markets. They shouldn’t have worried. Last week, Harrison told the Associated Press that he’d already spent all the money he raised in the third quarter and that the expenditures were essential to moving the Senate seat from “lean Republican” to “toss-up.”

But whether it’s smart to spend so much money this way remains an open question. Harrison said that the majority of his $60 million third-quarter spending went toward television ads, which multiple studies have shown are ineffective means of persuading voters. One such study found that any impact a televised ad had on voters’ preferences disappeared within a week or two. For candidates with as much money as Harrison—and for those as doomed as Democrat Amy McGrath, who’s pulling in dozens of millions of dollars in a race against Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell that she has almost no chance of winning—it’s hard not to wonder whether some of the money spent blanketing the airwaves of an oversaturated and highly polarized media market in the months before an election could be put to better use.

So I came up with a hypothetical alternative. What if some of these candidates saved a few million dollars and spent them in the offseason, when voters aren’t overwhelmed by competing ads? The ads wouldn’t focus on getting out the vote for a particular candidate; instead, they’d attempt to educate and win voters over on specific policy issues. Maybe they’d advocate for pieces of legislation. It would be a way of playing the long game, of building support for a political party’s agenda and shifting the electorate’s ideological balance over time, which would presumably help the ad-buying candidate in his or her next election cycle. Whether or not Harrison wins his 2020 race, he could benefit from a South Carolina that feels more open to the Democratic platform next time around.

I asked a few political scientists and legal experts what they thought of my brilliant idea. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University and author of the book Political Brands, told me that while lawmakers have traditionally used an earned-media strategy—talking to journalists about their pet issues—to build support for causes and legislation, some have tried an offseason advertising model. Trump, for one, began his reelection campaign the day he was inaugurated: Long before he had a Democratic opponent, he was using his campaign funds for commercials and Facebook ads about the border wall. He’s not the only one who’s ever done something like this. Before McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, political parties could collect unlimited funding, known as soft money, for generic party-building activities that sometimes took the form of the type of advertising I’m describing.

On the donor side, “if the spending is really about issues/legislation then it does not need to go through the campaign finance system at all,” Torres-Spelliscy told me in an email. “There is a whole nonprofit sector to lobby Congress, as well as for-profit lobbyists to lobby Congress.” Still, it can go through the system—for a candidate, spending campaign cash in nonelection years on issues-based advertising is certainly legal. Candidates have broad authority to disburse their funds as they see fit, which is why Trump was able to use money from his campaign to pay the lawyers suing California officials to keep him from having to release his tax returns.

OK, so my idea for a long-term cash investment in shifting the politics of the voting public is legal and not entirely unprecedented. So why don’t more candidates do it?

According to Christopher Witko, associate director of Penn State’s School of Public Policy, partisan electoral politics have created a giant collective action problem. If Harrison redirected some of his television ad dollars toward an offseason campaign to make South Carolinians more receptive to the Democratic agenda, he’d be creating a public good for Democrats, but he might not benefit from it. If Harrison lost in November, then entered the Democratic primary to run for Sen. Tim Scott’s seat in 2022, “another Democrat might say, ‘Harrison did really well [in 2020], and he’s kind of a liberal Black guy. Maybe I, as a centrist white dude, will come in here and try to win the nomination,’ ” Witko said. “And then Jaime spent his money making people more liberal to help this other person win.”

Swaying public opinion on any political issue or hot-button piece of legislation isn’t an easy task, either. Michael Miller, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, has done research on how people perceive the Affordable Care Act. “We showed that people really didn’t know much about it, and if you just give them a simple, quick, informational tour, they will learn about it,” he said. “But their opinions about the ACA, in our experiment, reverted back to previously held opinions within about two weeks. They learned the facts, but then their partisan filters took over after a while.” A U.S. voter is far more likely to adopt her political party’s stance on any given issue than lobby her party to adopt her stance or switch her vote because of any piece of legislation.

One of the few reliable influencers of political beliefs is labor unions. There’s a great deal of research that points to the ability of unions to not only inform members about political issues, but also shape their policy preferences. If Harrison—or anybody else—decided to raise a few hundred million dollars and put it toward building up union power in South Carolina, that could have a measurable effect on voters’ politics. But union organizing in the South is notoriously difficult, in part due to right-to-work laws that have also played a role in diminishing union influence in the Rust Belt, which some have blamed for the region’s rightward turn in 2016.

Without the infrastructure of a union—or a church, another powerful civic institution liberals have been joining at lower rates in recent years—for political organizing, it’s a lot harder to mobilize people around a given policy agenda. “It isn’t clear how much people are actually motivated by policy,” Witko said. “How much they know about it is questionable, but also just how much they even care about it.” This is particularly true for so-called hard issues, those that are relatively complex or difficult to explain and understand, such as the ACA or the Green New Deal. Most voters don’t have the time, ability, or desire to fully grasp every aspect of such a policy, so they typically embrace their favored political party’s view. When Republicans try to paint Democratic candidates as too progressive for supporting the Green New Deal, they aren’t riling voters up by pointing to specific unpopular planks of the plan. The specific planks of the nonbinding resolution, when explained to Americans, are broadly popular. Republicans are merely using an established buzzword to associate Democrats with an amorphous, fearmongering specter of “socialism.”

In other words, it’s not lagging public support for the Democratic agenda that’s keeping people from electing Democrats. So a campaign to educate the public on policy matters, even if it were successful in changing public opinion, would have limited impact on voting patterns. And in a country where tens of millions of eligible voters don’t vote, turning nonvoters into voters is a much better value proposition than flipping a voter from one side to the other. “The money that you’re going to have to spend in order to move public opinion by enough, and to sustain that move for long enough, to really matter in an enduring way is going to vastly eclipse what it takes to win a typical House seat” by having a traditional candidate-centered focus, Miller said.

Fine, Republican voters can’t be expected to get on board with the Green New Deal or “Medicare for All.” But what about Democratic voters? There are plenty of elected Democrats who don’t support these progressive plans. Could a shift in constituent opinion pressure them to change their minds?

Here’s an example: This summer, the New York Times reported that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced the Green New Deal in Congress in 2019, had spent millions more than any of her fellow members of Congress on digital advertising this campaign cycle. (Some of this advertising was deployed to fend off a primary challenger, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated with nearly 75 percent of the vote; in the general election, her seat is among the safest in the country.) Ocasio-Cortez is a prodigious fundraiser who has raised more money than most other members of Congress, including those in much more competitive races. Should she spend some of it on a campaign in her centrist Democratic colleagues’ districts to get people excited about the Green New Deal, in hopes that they’d pressure their representatives to vote for it?

Such a campaign would only work if legislators know about and are responsive to their constituents’ desires. And research has shown that, in many cases, they aren’t. One study found that state legislators of both parties “dramatically overestimated their constituents’ support for conservative policies.” Another found the same conservative-skewed, misinformed estimation of constituent opinion among congressional staffers, in part because legislative aides were getting their information from conservative and business-interest groups. Legislators are a lot less wedded to the whims of public opinion than they’re often criticized for being, or as much as some would want them to be.

Examples that prove this point are everywhere. Strong public support for certain policies—a public health insurance option, codified protections for abortion rights, a $15 minimum wage, not to mention a COVID-19 stimulus package that would prevent untold hardship and could win the favor of many voters—has not resulted in the enactment of those policies. “Public opinion is one factor that shapes legislation. And [political scientists who’ve studied it] would argue that it’s really a pretty small factor,” Witko said. “Public opinion kind of constrains policymaking, and it maybe gives a general direction to policymaking, but public opinion is ultimately not that important to the specific policies that pass.” Witko points to the blowback against George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security as one example of public opinion acting as a blunt veto. But more commonly, the voices of the majority are competing with, and sometimes against, those of lobbyists, interest groups, and party elites.

So earning more public support for the Green New Deal wouldn’t necessarily make it more likely to pass. (This holds true for many progressive policies in the U.S. simply because they’ll end up in the undemocratic Senate, which gives a conservative minority of voters disproportionate influence.) But there is a more effective alternative on the table, one thing that would give Ocasio-Cortez a better shot at seeing her preferred policies realized: getting more progressives into Congress.

Rather than spend money on a broad advertising campaign to win voters over on an aggressive plan to mitigate climate change and boost the economy, “if you’re AOC, you’re going to, with your leadership PAC, move money around to the candidates themselves,” Miller said. “So you’re giving money to friendly people to literally sit in Congress with you and vote on these issues. I think that’s a much more typical way for a member of Congress to see the relationship between money and power.” Ocasio-Cortez has established a leadership PAC, Courage to Change, which endorsed and funded several progressive candidates, including two primary challengers to Democratic incumbents in the House, this election cycle.

So here I am, back where I started, being told that really, actually, spending money on candidate-centered campaigns is the best way to get legislation passed. This is the system we have: a profoundly undemocratic, money-addled, conservative-biased, constituent-ignoring web of incentives that rewards legislators for earning cash for shallow self-promotion rather than building support for a policy agenda. Absent aggressive reforms to reduce the influence of money and business interests in politics, pouring money into left-leaning lobbying groups is a more reliable plan for building progressive power than trying to educate people about what good public policy can do for them. For the foreseeable future, candidates will be stuck raising millions of dollars for television ads that probably don’t work. Or, if you’re Ocasio-Cortez, you can chat about universal health care on Twitch and deliver your message to 430,000 gamers for free.

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