Financing 2006: The Parties

Mid-summer is a slow time in the congressional campaign. The voters are paying scant attention, and the campaigns are not really making a major effort to attract it. Congress is in recess, and the president is (usually) on vacation.

Thank goodness for the Federal Election Commission. For those willing to dig a little deeper than an executive summary of a media poll, the FEC offers lots of insight. Washington might be quiet in August, and Americans might be too busy getting ready for the beach to think about the election, but there is still quite a lot of campaign activity going on beneath the media's radar.

The campaigns and parties, while not making active pitches to the voters, are making active pitches to the donors. The federal government, since the mid-'70s, has required the public disclosure of periodic financial statements from all parties and candidates for federal office. The second quarter reports were released in mid-July. This information is incredibly helpful for moving us beyond the same exhausting verbiage — the imprecise and misleading polling data, the party spin, the media echo chamber, etc. — that has so far served as campaign 2006 coverage.

Unfortunately, most pundits only gave this data the "once-over." In the most recent release, what caught the glancing eye of most of them was the fact that, for the second straight month, the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had more cash on hand than their Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee. This little coup for the DCCC was surprising, given the fact that President Bush was busy hosting pricey fundraisers in June to refill the NRCC's coffers. Relatedly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the DSCC, raised a significantly larger amount than their Republican counterpart, the NRSC. They also have much more cash-on-hand. This does not come as a surprise. The DSCC has been beating the NRSC at the fundraising game since 2000.

Nevertheless, the GOP — between its the national committees — has raised about $100 million more than the Democrats, and retains about a $10 million advantage in cash-on-hand. This has mostly to do with the fact that the DNC is raising less and spending much more than the RNC. So far this cycle, the RNC has out raised the DNC by about $80 million, and has about $35 million more in the bank.

As I wrote in a previous column, DNC Chairman Howard Dean has made some unconventional spending decisions at the DNC. This might be having a positive effect on the DCCC and the DSCC's fundraising receipts. Strategic Democratic elites who, like Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Charles Schumer, head of the Democratic congressional fundraising teams, prefer a strategy of candidate assistance over party building would probably direct their money to the DCCC and the DSCC, where they know that their money will not be "wasted" in Alabama and Utah.

What this might have done is boost the DSCC and the DCCC's fundraising receipts at the expense of the DNC's. Republican elites, however, need not make such choices — as the RNC, the NRCC and the NRSC are all on the same page about how to spend money. Thus, Democratic congressional committees' fundraising receipts might be inflated insofar as they do not reflect a greater Democratic fundraising capacity, but rather a change in emphasis as to where the money goes.

An analysis of the historical data seems to bear this out. Let us examine DNC fundraising in all midterms since 1978, ignoring the presidential elections because the DNC and RNC fundraise much more in those years because of the conventions. Since 1978, the median percentage of all Democratic dollars that the DNC raises during a midterm is 54 percent. This year, the DNC's share of all Democratic dollars is just 39 percent. By contrast, the median RNC share of all GOP dollars during midterms is 46 percent. This year, their share is 51 percent.

This is not the lowest percentage the DNC has recorded since the FEC began reporting data. The DNC contributed just 35 percent of total receipts in 1990. But it is extremely low, and it does support the theory that party elites are shifting their dollars from the DNC to the congressional arms of the party. Democratic donors are "voting with their dollars," and they seem to support Emanuel and Schumer over Dean.

Traditionally, the GOP has had a greater fundraising capacity than the Democrats; this cycle is no exception. The real question is whether the Democrats have closed the gap. It seems that they have. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2002, the GOP raised about 52 percent more than the Democrats. So far this year, they have raised 42 percent more.

To what, however, should we attribute the closing of this gap? Is it due to the fact that the Democratic Party this year is buoyant and the Republican Party is sinking? Probably not.

The FEC has data on national party finances dating back to 1976. My analysis of this data indicates that the national mood — as measured by a function of the president's final Gallup job approval before the election — has little-to-no historical effect on aggregate party receipts. Party fortunes rise and fall, but party receipts do not follow party fortunes.

What, then, explains the difference in party receipts? By my analysis, three factors explain 77 percent of the variation in party fundraising. The first is time. The Republicans, in the 1970s, had an incredible fundraising advantage over the Democrats. Over time, the latter have whittled this advantage down from 187 percent in 1976 to 33 percent in 2004. What has happened is that the Democrats have modernized their fundraising program, effectively duplicating what the Republicans do - in particular, the Democrats have slowly but surely developed a very impressive direct mail strategy. In other words, there has been a secular trend toward fundraising parity.

The second factor that explains fundraising receipts is whether the FEC has complete data. Soft money was permitted beginning in the 1980 election, but the FEC did not require the reporting of this money until the 1992 election. The Democrats consistently enjoyed a soft money advantage over the Republicans — when this money was included in FEC reports, the size of the reported difference between the parties shrunk.

The third factor is whether the election is a presidential or midterm election. In the former, the Republican money advantage tends to shrink. There are two reasons this might be the case. First, the parties have to host conventions, which cost each party about the same amount every year and which businesses and labor unions strongly support. This might give Democrats a boost relative to Republicans because, for a major part of party activity, they are on par with the GOP. Another factor might be that Republican donors are more politically active than Democratic donors. GOP sponsors might not need the stimulus of a presidential election, while Democratic donors do.

Again, what does not seem to be a factor is the national mood. When we control for time, on/off year election, and completeness of FEC data, we can see that mood has almost no effect on aggregate party receipts. Between 2002 and 2006, there has been a 10 percent decline in the GOP's fundraising advantage; this is consistent with the slow-but-sure trend of Democratic improvement in fundraising.

The irrelevance of the national mood on party fundraising makes intuitive sense — the party committees are probably just as able to fundraise in bad environments, where they warn donors that party strength will be drastically diminished, as they are in good environments, where they promise donors that party strength will be dramatically increased. Fear and hope — it seems — are equally able to attract dollars to the parties. As we will see tomorrow, however, the national mood makes a major difference in which candidates receive money.

The media, then, has made two mistakes. First, they have ignored the history of party receipts. If they paid attention to party financing prior to 2006, they would see that the political environment does not have much of an effect on party receipts. Second, they have only examined the parts of the Democratic Party that are receiving more, and have ignored the part of the party that is receiving less. If they had a more holistic view of party fundraising, they would see that the Democrats are not so much raising an unusually large amount of money, but rather that donors are favoring the DCCC and DSCC, at the expense of the DNC.