Chris McDaniel will at this time Wednesday either be the likely next senator from Mississippi or an interesting footnote in American political history. If it's the latter, that footnote should include a key detail: McDaniel is probably the most significant beneficiary of outside campaign spending in recent political history.
A detail in a report on the race at NBC News jumped out at us:
As of June 4, Cochran had $407,574 in cash on hand, while McDaniel had $60,157. In contributions from June 4-23, Cochran raked in nearly $1.25 million vs. $181,000 for McDaniel. So if Cochran does indeed lose, it won’t be due to money. McDaniel’s campaign has been almost ENTIRELY bankrolled by outside groups.
That's a big imbalance, of course. But is it unusual? We pulled data from the Center for Responsive Politics' database of Federal Elections Commission filings to see.
There are two ways that outside groups try and influence elections. They can either spend money in support of a candidate (by, say, running a television ad saying, "Go vote for Chris McDaniel") or they can spend money to attack a candidate ("Don't vote for Thad Cochran because" something bad, etc.). The CPR database tracks both types of spending, on a candidate-by-candidate basis. It's imprecise, as a note on the site makes clear. But it provides a good sense of who is spending where.
We took the races in 2010, 2012 and 2014 in which outside groups spent $10 million or more and evaluated three dollar amounts for each of the top two candidates: how much the campaign itself spent, how much outside groups spent on behalf of that candidate, and how much outside groups spent against the candidate's opponent. Here's the result, in rough chronological order:
McDaniel is down there at the bottom, seemingly nothing impressive. What we were interested in, though, wasn't how far those bars stretched to the right. We wanted to know the ratio between outside spending and the candidate's own spending; that is, how much red there is next to a candidate versus the amount of blue. So we calculated that. We did it in two ways:
- as a percentage of all spending for and by the two candidates in a race, and
- as a percentage of the amount of money spent to help each candidate individually.
In both cases, McDaniel's campaign had the highest percentages of any of the races listed above.
Of all of the spending in the Mississippi Senate primary, 41.74 percent has been to boost McDaniel or in opposition to his opponent, Sen. Thad Cochran. 83.09 percent of the money that's benefited McDaniel has been from outside groups -- meaning that they've outspent his campaign by a factor of four-to-one. When NBC says, "McDaniel’s campaign has been almost ENTIRELY bankrolled by outside groups," that's what they mean.
It's very possible that this isn't specific to McDaniel, however. Note the campaign that comes in second in terms of the percentage of spending from outside groups: that of Rep. David Jolly, elected to Congress from Florida earlier this year. In both cases, these were unusual elections that gained national attention -- the sort of race where outside groups often get involved.
And, of course, both happened after the giant spike in outside spending that began in 2010, as the CRP notes. McDaniel's footnote might not only be about how much he got from outside groups. It may also be that he was on the front end of that trend.