One of the benefits of being an incumbent on the ballot in a House election is simply that people have heard of you and, perhaps, voted for you before. Better the devil you know and so on. But another important advantage is in fundraising: Incumbents have existing campaign operations and existing donor bases that let them raise more money that can be spent battering their hapless opponents into oblivion.
On Wednesday, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that 14 Republican incumbents were actually outraised by the Democrats hoping to replace them, which … is not how it usually works. Raising more money doesn’t necessarily mean you have more money to spend (since maybe you wasted a lot of money doing all that fundraising), and having more money to spend doesn’t mean you’re going to win (but correct me if I’m wrong, Madame President). But it’s still not a good sign for those incumbents that their opponents are doing a better job of filling the ol’ coffers.
Curious about how this shook out on a national basis, we pulled data from the Federal Election Commission for the most recent quarter and compared the amount of cash that candidates had in the bank to how their district voted in the 2016 election. Since many states haven’t held primaries yet, we compared the total amount raised by candidates from each party to one another.
There were 23 House districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 where Republicans had more money in the bank (cash-on-hand, as they say) than the Democratic candidates. There were 39 districts where President Trump won but the Democrats had more in the bank.
(2016 results are from DailyKos and include the redrawn Pennsylvania map.)
Now, we’ll note one good reason for that discrepancy: A Republican incumbent awaiting the winner of a hotly contested Democratic primary is one person being compared to two or three. We would not be surprised if the total from those several candidates was larger than the total for the one candidate.
If we look at the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index — a measure of how the district leans based on the 2012 and 2016 election results — the gap widens. There are 17 Democratic-leaning districts where Republicans have a cumulative cash-on-hand advantage — and 44 Republican districts where the balance favors the Democrats.
Instead of looking at that cumulative value, let’s look at the average cash-on-hand for Democrats and Republicans in each district. In this case, the difference narrows between Democrats and Republicans relative to the 2016 vote. Only five more districts were won by Trump but see an average cash-on-hand advantage for the Democrats than were won by Clinton and see an advantage for the GOP.
But considering Cook’s PVI score instead, there are more than twice as many districts that favor Democrats over Republicans.
We’re at an awkward point in the 2018 cycle in which we are not only reading tea leaves but also deciding which things count as tea leaves to be read. Money, though, is a pretty good one — and the indicator from reading these particular leaves is that the Democrats have an edge again.