We got way too excited over money in the 2012 elections

May 6, 2013

I'm at Yale University today at a conference on money, power, and inequality. The panel I'm moderating asks how much money mattered in the 2012 election. Here are my opening remarks. 


Sheldon Adelson: Not so good at betting on elections. (Jerome Favre/Bloomberg News)

This time last year, I was working with three political scientists -- John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Seth Hill -- to build a really, really simple model for predicting the election. The model only needed to know three things: Was an incumbent running? What was the president's approval rating in June? And what was economic growth like in the first three quarters of the year?

The model kept telling us that President Obama was likely to win. It told us he was likely to win under circumstances where I didn't think he was likely to win. That model offended my gut. And so I spent a lot of time coming up with things the model might be missing.

That model ended up predicting the popular vote to within one tenth of a percentage point.

Was the model really that accurate? Clearly not. Hitting the popular vote on the nose like that was a bit of luck. But the model was right. President Obama was the favorite in that election. His position was stronger than I thought, even though I had a lot more information than the model did. And one reason I think the model beat me was that I was reading a lot of stories about super PACs and campaign fundraising and my model wasn't.

This is a panel about whether, and to what degree, money mattered in the 2012 election. But we've got a big advantage now. The election is over. We can go back and run the numbers and tweak the equations and make everything add up. We're all going to sound really smart today.

But I think this panel needs to begin on a note of humility. The simple fact is that if you had followed the election simply be reading stories about money in politics, then those stories -- which included a lot of very alarming quotes from people in this room -- would've led you far astray. You would've done much worse than my simple, stupid model did in June.

That's easy enough to explain on the presidential level. Both sides had a lot of money. They also had a lot of free media, so it's not as if the only information voters were getting was coming from ads. At the end of the election, Mitt Romney was buying ads in Pennsylvania because there literally wasn't air time left to buy in Ohio. So we can just say the two sides more or less canceled each other out.

But I did some reporting on this question back in the waning days of the election. And the smart, savvy, sophisticated take was that the money question was overblown on the presidential level but absolutely decisive in House and Senate races. People kept talking about how these conservative super PACs were going to come in right before election day and dump huge amounts of cash into Senate and House races and flip them all to the Republicans, because in House and Senate races, money really can matter for all the reasons it doesn't matter as much at the presidential level.

And I want to own up to this: That sounded completely right to me. I wandered off and I repeated it on TV and I sounded really savvy and sophisticated.

That didn't happen either. Democrats dominated at the Senate level. They won a bunch of races they really had no business winning, like in North Dakota. They won the seat here in Connecticut, even though Linda McMahon spent $50 million to Chris Murphy's $10 million. And Democrats got more votes than Republicans at the House level, too -- it was apportionment, not ads, that kept John Boehner in the Speaker's chair.

So we can make excuses for all this. We can say that without money, it would've been an even bigger Democratic route. Or we can say that the way Democrats raised their money, with more of it going through official channels and less through Super PACs, was more effective. And all of that might be true.

But it's hard to look at the 2012 election, with its record fundraising and the flood of super PACs and all the rest of it, and come away really persuaded that money was a decisive player. And yet the way we talked about money in the run-up to the 2012 election, we really suggested it would be a decisive player. In fact, we suggested, quite often, that it wouldn't just decide the election, but that it would imperil democracy itself.

So I think we have some explaining to do. And I think this panel is a good time to start.

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