How Money Might Affect House Races (Part 2): the Super PACs

Oct 9 '12

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Super PACs have become incredibly active.  In case you have been trapped in a dark cave somewhere, Super PACs are independent expenditure committees that can receive and spend money in unlimited amounts so long as they do not coordinate with any candidate’s campaign. According to the Sunlight Foundation, all independent expenditures (including money from the parties) totaled $589 million this cycle.  That’s a lot of money.

Attention is starting to turn toward the specific activity in House races.  In fact, some experts have been worried for a while that the real impact of Super PACs will fall in these lower-profile races, not in the big-time world of presidential politics.  Here’s Rick Hasen, a widely and rightly respected expert in election law, in January:

Given the expected vast spending by presidential candidates and parties in the general election, I am not very concerned that Super PAC spending will influence the outcome of the presidential election, though it might…But I am concerned that Super PAC spending will influence the outcome of close Senate and congressional races.

How much money are we talking about?  As of October 3, $122 million in outside money has been spent in House races.  About three-quarters of that money ($95 million) has been spent in the general election, and almost half of that ($43 million) has been spent by parties, who follow different rules and have different incentives.*  That leaves $52 million spent by Super PACs.  This is still a large amount of money.  But to put it in perspective, the fall candidates had raised over 12 times as much by June 30.

What we want to know is how this money is going to affect the races for the House.  There are three questions here.  First, how much is being spent by each side?  Second, where is it being spent–that is, on which races?  And third, does it make a difference?

The answer to the first question is that there has been a surprising amount of balance in House Super PAC spending so far.  If we count money spent against a candidate as money favoring the other side, then Democrats have received $26.5 million of Super PAC money compared to $24.7 million for Republicans.

The second question is arguably more important.  In the races where it is spent, is it spent evenly, to support candidates who are struggling, or to wipe out potential competition?

The money is certainly concentrated.  The top five percent of races account for 88% of the Democratic Super PAC money and 73% of the Republican Super PAC money.  Moreover, Super PAC spending tends to go where the action is already intense:  Super PAC spending by one side tends to be higher where the candidates have raised roughly equal amounts of money and where there is a lot of Super PAC spending by the other side.  (Two potentially important factors–the presence of an incumbent, and the partisan composition of the district–don’t seem to matter.)

But these relationships are general tendencies, and weak ones at that.  The reality is that Super PAC spending tends to have a strong partisan skew in any particular race.  The graph below shows the relationship between Super PAC spending on each side.  The labels identify the highest spending races, and the color coding indicates races where the Democrat (blue) or the Republican (red) has more Super PAC support.  Equal spending by both sides would fall along the dotted line, yet almost no races land there.  Instead, heavy Super PAC spending on one side is often matched with little or nothing on the other.

When this money is added to the fundraising totals for each candidate as if it were their own, it doesn’t generally tip the balance much.  Candidates who have good fundraising numbers are still in the game with Super PAC spending.  Those who do not, are not.  There’s just too much money in these races already, and the marginal returns of additional spending are too small.

It’s worth noting that the story is very different for party spending.  Party independent expenditures, which account for a huge portion of outside spending, tend to temper the effect of candidate fundraising and Super PAC activity.  When party outside spending is added in as well, it strengthens candidates who are competitive but slightly behind, rather than strictly reinforcing the status quo.

The last question is:  what does it mean for our prediction?  Consistent with all our other analysis, the answer is “not much.”  With Super PAC money we predict a three-seat loss for Democrats, compared to a two-seat loss with regular fundraising, and a one-seat gain without fundraising factored in.  The result is identical if party money is included too.  This is close enough to be a wash.


*Party expenditures are different for a couple of reasons.  First, parties have different incentives than almost any other political actor, because they actually want to control government rather than promote one particular issue.  Second, they are subject to donation caps that make it harder for them them to raise money, though they can still spend it independent of the campaigns in unlimited amounts.