One of the few issues on which I have some real expertise is campaign finance reform and the role of money in politics. (Although I'm also sick and tired of the issue.) I have to finish a book chapter about the topic in the next week or two, and so I wanted to update a statistic that I had calculated a year or two ago: In 2000, every newly elected member of Congress, with one exception, from a competitive district spent more than one million dollars to get elected. And the exception spent $980,000. So the barrier to entry for a competitive congressional race would seem to be $1 million. That applies not just to challengers facing incumbents, but to elections for open seats.
The other day I set out to update that statistic. I assumed the price of entry would be higher -- perhaps as much as $1.5 million. And there were some incredibly expensive races last year -- the top 25 spenders range from $8 million down to $2.3 million. But I noticed two interesting things: First, all five of the top spenders, and seven of the top ten, lost. (That's not entirely surprising, because with a few exceptions, these are self-financed candidates, who sometimes lack other political skills.) Second, as I started looking at the freshmen, unlike 2000, there were a few who not only didn't spend a million, they were actually outspent. On Long Island, for example, Rep. Tim Bishop beat an incumbent with only $800,000 to the incumbent's $1.3 million. In a Republican-leaning district in Louisiana, a guy named Rodney Alexander won a hair's-breadth victory, also spending only $800,000. And there are several other examples as well.
Not that $800,000 isn't a lot of money. It's more than most people can raise in small contributions. And I don't mean to minimize the role of money in politics. Incumbents still raise enough to scare off all but the bravest, richest, or most well-connected challengers. Maybe all these are anomalies. But it's also possible that as politics becomes a little more ideologically polarized, money might matter a little less. Perhaps money has more influence in an environment of ideological and party ambiguity, when a candidate can get away with running thousands of ads that either tear down his opponent or fudge his own positions.
Another example: Presidential fundraising. Coverage of Governor Dean's fundraising success has noted that he broke Clinton's 1992 single-quarter fundraising record, but more interesting to me, all of the Democrats are exceeding what Democrats have been able to do in the past, by a lot. Here's a link I found to an FEC chart comparing fundraising through January of the election year from the 1998 election through the 1996 election:
In 1992, all of the Democrats put together, including the nutcases, had raised less than $18 million at that point, of which Clinton had $5.5 million. Today, at the end of just the third quarter of the year before the election, all the Democrats together have raised about $84 million. These are not directly comparable numbers, of course: the campaign started earlier; these numbers aren't adjusted either for standard inflation or actual inflation in campaign expenditures such as television time. But the bottom line is that it has proven easier for these Democrats, particularly Dean, Clark and, to some extent Edwards and Kerry, to raise money than they probably imagined. The Internet is part of the story. Bush is the other part of the story -- all of a sudden, there is motivation for small donors. Powerlessness, combined with the particular qualities of these candidates, are actually helping the Democrats get out of the trap that Tony Coelho built for them in the late 80s, of dependence on big corporate donors, many of whom give to Democrats solely on the gamble that they would continue to control at least one house of Congress.
The third example is the possibility that Haley Barbour (who is, basically, what George W. Bush would be if he hadn't stopped drinking) might, just might, get his ass kicked in his attempt to become the lobbyist/governor of Mississippi.
None of this is a huge change in the culture of politics. But one of my deep convictions is that we often miss these big shifts, and that by the time we pass legislation or other policy changes to respond to problems, the problems have either evaporated or shifted form. I'm not sure this is the case with money in politics, but I'm surprised to find that it's not as easy to make the case about the problem.