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Evans

150 Million Reasons to Bet on the Democrats

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 20, 2008

According to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post , Senator Barack Obama raised $150 million in the month of September. Holy Cow! To put this into perspective, Obama’s September fundraising haul dwarfs the previous record of $67 million (set by Obama in August), is almost 40% of the $375 million President George W. Bush raised in 2004, and is almost twice the $84 million Senator John McCain is allowed to spend by accepting federal matching funds. Overall, Obama has raised $619 million and he still has another month to raise money. Obama’s money advantage changes the dynamics of the race allowing Obama to go on offense not just against McCain but the entire Republican Party in his attempt to transform American politics.

Let’s begin by examining his record haul. In September, 632,000 new donors gave to Obama bringing his total donor list to 3.1 million. While we do not know if the donor list is made up of members of the Democratic base or previously dormant voters (it is probably both), the numbers portend trouble for Republicans. First, it indicates clear excitement on the part of Obama supporters. This means that they are probably working on campaigns, talking to friends and colleagues, putting up signs, etc. This is important because studies show that personal contact from someone one knows is much more effective than generic phone calls, mailings, and ads. It also confirms trends that show Democrats have greater intensity than Republican activists which will be seen in each party’s get out the vote efforts.

Second, the fact that most voters give on the internet indicates a new type of donor. Most donors tend to be wealthy and can afford making a contribution. The small contribution amounts and internet donation suggests that Obama has tapped into a middle class and above network which they can tap into on a consistent basis. And it indicates that professionals, a previously Republican group, are probably moving toward the Democratic Party which contributes to the party’s long term success.

However, it is not the money per se that matters. The key is that Obama and the Democrats are using the money to maximize their political opportunity by directing anger at Bush toward anger at Republicans and conservative ideas. They are using the money to assault the Republican Party and conservative ideas to elect Obama president and to attempt to make Democrats the governing majority for a generation.

First, we see Obama go on offense against the Republicans. Due to the disgust with Bush, Obama already has wrapped up each state that voted for John Kerry 4 years ago. That means that he is now focusing on swing states and soft Republican states (see CNN’s Ad Spending tracker for specifics) and this is where his money advantage kicks in. Just last week, Obama outspent McCain in TV ads $39 million to $11.9 million and he has had that advantage for several weeks. That is weeks of anti-Republican and pro-Democratic messages saturating the air waves. That combined with the public blaming Republicans for the poor economy and failure of the rescue/bailout package is taking its toll.

By playing on McCain’s turf, Obama is forcing McCain to spend money shoring up his base instead of going after swing voters. And for each dollar and day spent in Republican leaning states, that is less time and money spent on swing states depleting his already meager resources. Moreover, it forces McCain to emphasize policies that mobilize the base but may not appeal to centrist voters. This means that McCain must stabilize his base and convince voters in states leaning toward Obama to vote for him and he has just 15 days to do it.

Second, we see how the Obama and pro-Democrat message helps down ballot races as states are saturated with pro-Democratic messages. Candidates for congress, state, and local offices can spend less time on advertisement benefiting from the general pro-Democrat advertising. That allows them to more specifically target their voters and conserving their money for other campaign activities.

This can be clearly seen in the congressional races. Obama is spending large amounts of money in CO, NC, NH, NM, MN, and VA so it should not be surprising that the Udall cousins, Kay Hagan, Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, and Mark Warner are leading their US Senate races. Moreover, the money spent in CO, FL, IN, OH, NH, NM, NY, MO, PA, and VA help in districts that House Democrats are targeting. The Obama spending combined with the money spent by the congressional committees (who have also vastly outraised their GOP counterparts) and the money raised by challengers recruited by the Hill Committees is paying off. Most experts expect House Democrats to pick up 20-35 seats while Senate Democrats are closing in on 60 seats and thus the ability to break filibusters. This is significant from a policy perspective because it provides greater margins that allow them to enact more liberal legislation.

Little noticed are also the advantages accruing to Democratic state and local candidates. Obama has so much money that he is talking about donating some of it to Democratic affiliates in states. Plus, they also benefit from the generic pro-Democratic advertising. The Democrats are hoping to make major gains in state legislatures so they can withstand any potential backlash in the 2010 elections so that they can control redistricting after the 2010 census. If they control the state legislatures and governor’s mansions, then they can redraw lines that maximize Democratic representation by protecting vulnerable Democratic incumbents and eliminating Republican seats. This can perpetuate their power into the future.

Third, the money helps promote the idea of a Democratic realignment. It is rare for one party to make large gains in back to back elections (last time was 1950 and 1952). Everyone admits that this will occur again this year. And so while we will not know if voters are making permanent changes in party identification, we do know that the political environment favors Democrats. This helps because quality candidates (e.g., office holders) are strategic and run when they think they can win. Two large Democratic victories would convince many strategic Democrats to believe they can win in 2010 and thus they run while dis-spirited Republicans see little chance of winning and run weak candidates. This means that the Democratic somebodies will beat the Republican nobodies.

This is especially important for the Senate. In 2010, the Republican will be defending 20 Senate seats. 9 of the 10 Senate Republicans are over age 75 and got around 55% of the vote or less last time. Will these older members want to wage fierce campaign at their age when they are guaranteed of remaining the minority for the near future or retire when they can go out a winner? This is important because the strongest candidate in each election is the incumbent. An open seat presents more opportunities to the other party which increases the chance of gains in 2010. So even if Democrats do not get 60 seats in 2008, they have an excellent chance in 2010.

Fourth, Obama is advancing DNC Chair Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy. Obama has decided to contest each state and began building a grassroots organization in all states during the primary. This has helped his ability to move swing and red states to his column. The money helps in developing field offices. In the swing state of New Mexico, Obama has 40 field offices compared to McCain’s 10. In red North Carolina, Obama has double the number (47 to 20) and they have been active longer. These people can serve as the foundation for the local party and recruit and train future party leaders and candidates. Thus, Democrats will be able to compete in places it has not historically draining Republican resources even further. Moreover, if these people initially got involved because of Obama, they are likely to pursue similar strategies and policies which means that Obama is making the party in his image. This perpetuates his control and influence of the party far beyond his time in office (assuming he wins).

Fifth, if Obama can raise $619 million and counting as a candidate, just think how much he can raise as the incumbent. While he will upset some people with his policies and lose their contributions, he and his party will gain the support of organized interests who contribute to incumbents to gain access. This potentially puts the GOP at a competitive disadvantage unless they can increase their fundraising.

As I wrap up though, I do not think that all is lost for Republicans. First, Obama has the financial and political advantage and is just up by 5-6 points in the polls when he should be up 10-20. This indicates that some voters are still unsure about him. Second, with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Obama will govern from the left in a center right country. This means he is likely to alienate many voters helping the GOP rebound. Third, there are diminishing marginal returns to spending after a point where additional dollars do not accomplish much. Fourth, the out party usually learns its lesson and retools from an organizational perspective. The GOP will adopt many of the same successful strategies as Obama and be more competitive in the future. The GOP will still need to learn the lessons from the Bush Administration from a policy perspective and develop more appealing, coherent policies that work.

Regardless, the stakes are high and the Democrats are doubling down. Will they run the table and pick up even greater than expected congressional majorities? Probably not. Will they make significant gains in 08 though? Well, as Gov. Sarah Palin would say, “You Betcha!”