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It's Money After All

I've spent a lot of time in the last seven or eight years on the issue of campaign finance reform. I've written a lot about it, and as a funder, I've helped to build some of the organizations working on reform. But I have a love-hate relationship with the issue -- maybe more hate. It's limited as an explanation of what's wrong with American democracy. It's hard to engage the public around such an intangible, process-oriented issue, and even harder to do it in a way that doesn't deepen their cynicism about government. And even the tiniest steps toward reform, such as the McCain-Feingold limits on soft money, are excruciating, and lead inevitably to disappointment since they change so little. Finally, I'm sympathetic to both the futility argument (private money will always find a way into the system) and the free speech arguments, which is why I'm always focused on reforms that expand the ability of candidates to communicate rather than just restrict money.

And yet, a few months ago, a colleague asked me for advice on a recommendation to a foundation that wanted to find a single main project to respond to the problems of American democracy. Everything could be on the table: election-day voter registration, vote-by-mail, redistricting reform, fusion, anything. Even with everything on the table, I still couldn't come up with a better single solution than generous public financing for candidates. The full public financing models in Arizona and Maine, or the 4:1 matching system of New York City still offer the best hope for vigorous, competitive elections in which all voices can be heard. That's not to the exclusion of other reforms that may help, but on balance, I've concluded it would have the greatest impact.

I was reminded of this by the paper I read today, thanks to Ruy Teixera's Emerging Democratic Majority blog, by Alan Abramowitz and his colleagues at Emory, Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections They attempt to assess the leading arguments for the declining competitiveness of House elections -- the inherent power of incumbency, increasing partisan and cultural polarization (Red and Blue America), and redistricting, and reject all three. More important, they argue, are "sorting," in which Republican/conservative districts are less likely to have anomalous Democratic representatives and vice versa, and the financial disadvantage of challengers. The average amount spent by challengers in moderately competitive races, they find, was $699,000, and only 13% of challengers spent that much.

After the 2000 elections, I found that only one new member of Congress from a competitive district -- that included both successful challengers and open-seat candidates -- had spent less than $1 million.

Several years ago, I heard Senator Mitch McConnell, the arch-foe of all campaign finance reform, argue that parties needed to have the special advantage of soft money because only parties will support challengers. Yet the sad fact is that parties are the most risk-averse. Any candidate who approaches the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with a plan to challenge a not-obviously-vulnerable Republican will get one question: "How much can you raise?' Not, "What can we do to help?" If a candidate isn't independently wealthy or well-connected enough to raise a million, the party puts the race in the second tier. And thus when a seat suddenly moves into play, as when Rep. Jim Greenwood suddenly retired to become a lobbyist last year, the party has done nothing to put its candidate in a stronger position.

Public financing for congressional campaigns is obviously going to be a tough sell, but perhaps as more politicians come to national office with positive impressions of the New York, Arizona, or Maine systems, it will become more plausible. In the meantime, the hundreds of thousands of small donors energized in the last year should begin to think about how to bankroll those promising, marginal congressional challengers, if only to get them to the point where they can get the DCCC's risk-averse attention.

I do have one caveat to the Abramowitz et al paper: I don't find his rejection of the theory that redistricting is a principle cause of the decline of competition to be convincing. The authors theorize that if redistricting reinforces incumbent advantage, one should expect to see a greater decline in competition in the cycle immediately after redistricting, that is, 1982, 1992, or 2002. Since those election cycles tend to be more competitive than cycles in the middle/end of the decades, they conclude that redistrticting is not the major factor in incumbent advantage or partisanship. But redistricting is always going to be a disruptive event. Even if redistricting is done in a way to protect both current incumbents and the party in power, the election immediately after a redistricting is likely to bring some change. There may be new districts, incumbents may be pit against each other, and even safe incumbents may be running in partially unfamiliar territory. In fact, one often sees redistricting plans in which a safe incumbent who gets 75% of the vote actually encourages adding unfriendly territory that might reduce his share of the vote to 58%, but takes it out of another district in order to protect another incumbent of the same party. (In fact, I once heard Rep. Jerry Nadler explain that he had done exactly that, volunteering to add more conservative and very distant Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Gravesend and Bensonhurst to his mostly Upper West Side Manhattan district, creating a bizarre district of two parts separated not just by New York Harbor but also by several miles of land.) Such seats might appear slightly vulnerable in the first election after the redistricting, but then quickly settle down as the incumbent lays claim to them.

So, let's not take redistricting off the table as a factor. But the rest of the Abramowitz paper is very powerful. And it does give Democrats some cause for optimism, in that there are a dozen or more districts in which Republicans represent districts in which they are as out of step as Democrats were in Southern districts a dozen years ago. If the money is there for good challengers, those seats can perhaps be competitive. And in the long run, if we can reduce the financial barrier through good public financing, we can expect more competition in all these races.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

The Austin American-Statesman's Bill Bishop wrote an excellent series on the sorting phenomenon last year (he doesn't discount redistricting either).

Especially compelling to me is his description of how self-reinforcing the socio-political sorting effect is (I'm assuming Abramowitz speaks to the same trend). Once a district reaches a certain tipping point, the minority party is effectively shut out of the political conversation because voters feel disenfranchised or are too intimidated to speak up. Its ideology left unchecked, majority voters become more radicalized and tend to support more ideological candidates, further marginalizing minority party voters, and the vicious circle continues.

Bishop found that the number of "landslide counties" has increased exponentially in the last 15 years, creating not so much red and blue states as pockets of red and blue all over the country. I think his thesis also meshes with the post-election analyses that revealed Republicans developed "stealth campaigns" that relied as much on word of mouth in ideologically homogenous communities as traditional advertising and canvassing.

Posted by: Grant | Jan 6, 2005 7:19:52 PM

Public financing is fundamental to competitive elections. My Congressional rep, Bob Goodlatte, is a committee chair who's been unopposed for three elections in a row. He has $1.2 million sitting around in donations from corporations and lobbies that have business before his committee. When I raised that topic at a "town meeting" last year, saying that this represented a huge obstacle to anyone wanting to challenge him, Rep. Goodlatte said: "Oh, there's a lot of people for whom that's just walking-around money. You just need to find one of those people and run them."

So now Congress is only for multi-millionaires ? It's a system of legalized bribery, and until that changes, nothing will change.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Jan 7, 2005 11:24:50 AM

You are right that campaign finance is the most important issue. Big Business bribes candidates and after these candidates are elected, they do what Big Business wants. This is the reason America has become so conservative.

However, the chances of enacting a campaign finance law now is close to 0. Democrats should approach the issue a little differently. Democratic candidates should announce they would not accept big contributions from fatcats. They would accept no more than $100 (let's say) from anyone.

Howard Dean has shown the way here by gathering millions on the net. If Democratic candidates follow this approach, they can go back to becoming advocates of the little guy - where they belong.

Posted by: Paul Siegel | Jan 7, 2005 2:56:05 PM

We need a DNC chair who inspires the confidence of the base so that we can raise the $50-60 million needed to finance challengers in House districts in 50 or 60 districts. In other words, Howard Dean for DNC chair.

Posted by: aenglish | Jan 8, 2005 2:03:16 PM

On Obsidian Wings, the issue of redistricting has been the subject of a vigorous debate (with interestingly most of the Dems coming down passionately against it) in response to Arnold's recent foray into the arena and further stimulated by some comments from Kevin Drum to the effect he's pro tackling the redistricting issue if it's done nationwide but not state-by-state (e.g. California).

Mark Schmitt is quite probably correct about public finance being the great equalizer as a practical matter. I doubt, however, that any progress is likely to be made in my lifetime if it's approached as a single issue. Rather, IMHO, it and several other pieces of political process reform need to be part of a Democratic reform package advocated on the grounds of principle, not on the grounds of winning a few more House districts. The principle is that the current system -- which involves multiple pieces not just a single "villain" like campaign finance -- is producing government that doesn't represent the moderate majority of Americans. Instead, it's encouraging ideological extremes and narrow monied interests. Only reforming "the system" will "take back America for Americans," etc. You all know the theme songs.

The package may never get enacted (kinda like the Contract with America), but it would serve to give a distinct ID to the Dems, provide a clear and continuous message that it's the GOP that controls the Hill (even if/when the Dems have the WH), and undercut the ability of the Arnolds of the world to make populist hay in the jurisdictions where the electoral math suits them.

I'm taking the liberty of cross-posting my comment at Ob Wings because the thread there is quite long (more than 90 comments and counting) and individual comments can't be linked to separately.
************

I've long placed a high priority on the need to tackle gerrymandering because of a great concern about the constant erosion of democratic (small "d" please) principles for which gerrymandering is the poster child.

Switching to partisan grounds, immediately after the election I was that much more convinced it's essential that the Dems adopt it as a leading issue. Not because it's going to be a "winner" in and of itself. And certainly not because it's likely to make a huge amount of difference in how the little details might play out from one election to the other from state to state in changing the composition of Congress or state legislatures.

Calling for anti-gerrymandering reforms (and for that matter, a constitutional amendment) is one of the most visible ways Democrats can reposition themselves as a reform party. It needs to be made part and parcel of delivering a constant drumbeat of criticisms of the current system taken as a whole -- not just piecemeal campaign finance -- that's producing a political system totally unrepresentative of the vast majority of Americans in the center. We've got a system that gives inordinate power to ideological extremes and a host of narrow monied interests.

There's nothing inconsistent with calling for reform at both federal and state levels while criticizing a specific incarnation of "reform" if, as with Arnold's "plan," it can be shown to have inordinate Republican partisan benefits. But the Dems can't criticize the specifics of a concrete Republican "reform" proposal unless they're operating from a principled ground of calling for across-the-board reform themselves.

I have sympathy for the detente argument expressed earlier. But that assumes there's someone the Dems are going to negotiate with on the other side. Who in the GOP, other than an Arnold who wants to kill multiple birds with the gerrymandering stone (improve his party's position in Calif and polish his small "d" democratic credentials). Arnold is wrong-footing Dems if he can embrace a reform like this -- which ought to be a Dem Party leading issue -- and get them attacking him for it, when they themselves have a trackrecord of redistricting shenanigans when it suits them.

The problem in both Sacamento and Washington is that the insiders from both parties have too much invested in the current system, and when they sit down to negotiate, it turns into a back-scratching divvying up of the pie. The only time it doesn't is when one party can ram a result down the other's throat a la DeLay.

I don't think the Dems are likely to dynamite the Hasterts of the world out of their current position on a district-by-district basis, chipping away one election at a time. It's only going to be under a "throw the bastards out" scenario a la 1994. That means the Dems have to paint the Congressional Republicans as the folks in control of the whole shooting match and invested in the current system -- gerrymandering, campaign finance, ethics rules games, legislation in backrooms, "majority of the majority," etc etc. And position themselves as the process reformers to return Congress to the majority of centrist Americans.

I started to think about a blog or something focused along these lines right after the elections, but as with most things got diverted. But I'm still convinced that it's the only way for the Dems to go. They can't sit around decades waiting for another charismatic leader to take them to the promised land. (Or more acurately, they're perfectly capable of sitting around decades as they've demonstrated, but it's not a very promising idea.)

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