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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Benefits of Long-Term Thinking

By Mark Schmitt
I agree with almost everything in Jon’s piece, so I want to start my comments from Jon’s last point, which is that parties target races too narrowly, and work back from there.
Sixteen years ago, when I was new to Washington, I heard Newt Gingrich, who was then not yet his party’s leader in the House, decry a “culture of corruption” in Congress on a Sunday talk show. He identified six House Democrats who he thought exemplified this culture, all touched by scandals, mostly trivial.
I quickly wrote an article that appeared in Roll Call noting that all six of Gingrich’s poster-children had been left essentially unopposed in the previous few election cycles. That is, they either had no Republican opponent, or that opponent was woefully underfunded and got no help from the national Republican Party, and therefore the GOP bore plenty of responsibility for their continued presence in Congress. These members continued to hold their seats, I wrote, “because of the Republicans’ failure to build a party that reaches down to the grassroots level of politics,” which was true at the time.
I would hate to think that my advice helped Gingrich figure out that he needed to contest these seats, at least one of which his party now holds, and I’m sure it didn’t. He didn’t need me to tell him that he needed to build a party from the bottom up. My point was basically, “put up or shut up” about the culture of corruption. To his credit, Gingrich put up. He knew that a party had not just an electoral opportunity but a duty to fight what it saw as corruption first in the electoral arena, before turning to the Ethics Committee or the Courts.
So the situation is the same for Democrats today: Democrats bear almost no responsibility for the culture of corruption in Congress, but they nonetheless should be ashamed of one thing: leaving Bob Ney, John Doolittle, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter, and others largely unopposed. While most of these soon-to-be jailbirds had many hundreds of thousands or millions to spend on their reelections, their opponents, entirely ignored by the Democratic establishment, had nothing – averaging somewhere in the low five digits. The corrupt incumbents still would probably have won their heavily Republican districts (some gerrymandered, others just naturally partisan districts) but an adequately funded opponent might at least have called some attention to their misbehavior. And when the indictment comes, or the national tide arrives, there’s no better opponent to take advantage of the moment than one who has run before.
So I think that a party has not just a tactical reason, but a moral obligation to not whine about gerrymandered districts but to put up meaningful alternatives wherever possible. In “ordinary” elections, that may seem like a waste of money and energy, but it will pay off in years like this one. And to do otherwise is simply to choose not to be a national party, to have no presence in the lives of the many Democrats who live in red states.
Now, were I to make this argument to one of the professionals who, let’s say, runs one of the Democratic committees, I can imagine the answer: “Thanks for informing me of my ‘moral obligation,’ college boy! Look, I got one obligation and one only: to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House in January (or Harry Reid majority leader). You want me to waste money on some schmuck who’s running in a district drawn by Bob Ney for Bob Ney, where Bush got 55%? What if I put money in there, and then lose one of the ten districts where we have a real shot?”
I don’t think that viewpoint is represented in this forum, but it is a common attitude. But there are two assumptions embedded in it that need to be challenged: First, that resources are finite. I heard a leading Democrat complain the other day that all the money going to Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut could be put to better use on behalf of Democratic candidates Claire McCaskill in Missouri or Jim Webb in Virginia. And it’s hard to argue with that – if you assume there is a fixed pot of money from a fixed group of Democratic donors that must be allocated with care. But all evidence from the last few elections suggests that’s not the case. The number of donors to Democratic candidates tripled between 1998 and 2004. The two Democratic campaign committees outraised the Republicans in the last reporting cycle, an amazing achievement considering that Democrats possess none of the committee chairmanships or positions of power that can usually be used to leverage campaign donations. Excitement, sense of possibility, a sense of a real, meaningful national party with a message, and the presence of big issues – these are the things that are driving Democratic fundraising. And when candidates like Lamont, or Howard Dean before him, bring in new donors, those donors probably aren’t limited to that first $250. There’s no reason that the $250 Lamont donor can’t be persuaded to give another $250 to McCaskill or Webb later in the fall, and that donor is now on a list. Exciting candidates running against particularly vile Republicans, like Richard Morrison in his challenge to DeLay in 2004, can also generate new donors. But it’s hard for the Democratic establishment – accustomed to the 1990s, when the pool of Democratic donors was most definitely finite – to think in terms of possibilities rather than limits.
The second assumption is a linear analysis of the value of increasing spending. The parties tend to assume that targeting is essential because the more money they can put into a race, the more likely they are to win it. So a few top-tier races, such as New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid’s challenge to Rep. Heather Wilson, have millions of dollars poured into them, while scores of other Democratic candidates plod along with barely enough money to buy palm cards. The Democratic operative who insists that he needs to put more money into one of the handful of swing races assumes that the $300,000 that takes Madrid from $1.8 million to $2.1 million is worth at least as much as the $300,000 that takes a second-tier candidate from $250,000 to $550,000. But it’s not. And here Jon Krasno’s previous work is very relevant. He is the scholar who demonstrated that there are severely diminishing returns to additional spending on campaigns, even when both candidates are spending a lot. Another $300,000 to Madrid will make little difference to her chances of winning, whereas the same sum to a good but underfunded candidate running in a district that looks tough on paper might actually put the race in play.
(Incidentally, that’s why I favor campaign finance reform that focuses on public financing, rather than limits on spending or contributions. I’m more concerned with getting more candidates to the point of viability, so that they can effectively challenge a Ney or DeLay, than with chasing after the endless loopholes by which those in power raise more money.)
This is not unique to politics; in all areas of life, people have a tendency to misjudge the value of big investment for a high payoff vs. a smaller investment in a longer shot. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis told exactly the same story in terms of baseball – how the Oakland A’s realized that they could stay competitive by investing in a good number of under-appreciated players, while richer teams fell over each other to overpay a few established stars, many of whom didn’t work out anyway.
But there is also the factor that in politics, a lot of the key decision-makers have a personal investment in the system of targeting. The political consultants who get rich – those who get media commissions, those who do mail and to a lesser degree pollsters – don’t make their money off a handful of moderately funded campaigns. They make it off the big scores, the campaigns like Madrid-Wilson, or better, the self-funded millionaires. For the media consultant, there is no diminishing return to that extra $300,000 – it pays the same $45,000 commission either way.
So Jon’s argument goes well beyond, “Does redistricting matter?” There’s a whole system of incentives and assumptions that work together to narrow the field and protect incumbents, and the myth of gerrymandering tends to obscure those assumptions, and prevent them from being challenged.

One comment on “The Benefits of Long-Term Thinking

  1. Bruce Thompson on

    A very interesting discussion, I think. I would like to underline the point that there are two kinds of gerrymandering: for partisan advantage and to protect incumbents. Probably the latter is more common, particularly when legislatures redistrict themselves.
    As an example take a state with ten congressional seats and an evenly divided overall presidential vote. For incumbent protection, five of the seats might represent districts that are 60% Republicans and 40% Democrats, with the other five just the reverse.
    For partisan advantage, assuming Republicans control the process, they could have 8 seats with 55% Republicans and two 70% Democratic. This seems to be essentially the strategy used in several southern states.
    Besides the loss of seats, there is an additional disadvantage to Democrats of the latter strategy. These two districts will be so atypical of the state as a whole that their representatives will have little incentive to appeal to independents and Republicans, and thus will have little practice in what it would take to be viable state-wide candidates. Since they may be the most visible Democratic office-holders in the state, it may also lead to the perception that the Democratic Party is out of touch with voters in the state.


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