Tea Leaves in the Primary Results


Amid the continuing buzz of opinion polls that show great dissatisfaction with the president and Congress, there are some real elections taking place around the country. The 2006 primary election season is off and running and yesterday saw primaries in three more states – Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and my own state of Oregon.

That makes a total of 10 states that have now held their primary elections. The others already in are Texas, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Nebraska and West Virginia.

I’ve been monitoring the results, and two trends are immediately apparent:

  1. No incumbent has yet lost at the polls.
  2. If you spend more money than the other guy, you’re four times as likely to win.

The season is early, and it’s always possible that an incumbent will be booted by voters from his or her own party in the upcoming primaries. But absent some new indictments, don’t bet on it. Tom DeLay easily topped the GOP challengers in his Houston area district before he resigned his seat last month, and Bob Ney of Ohio – also stung in the Abramoff scandals – won big anyway in his Republican primary.

As for the second trend, my guess is it will stay roughly at that same level – with about 75% or 80% of the top spenders winning their elections – from now until the primaries are over. That’s consistent with past years, and with the sort of thing that usually happens in open-seat districts where no incumbent is running.

In other words, if you take away the nearly priceless edge of incumbency, the main thing that separates the winners from the losers on Election Day is the size of their campaign budgets.

It’s not always the case. The biggest spender doesn’t always win, particularly if they’re funding their own campaign. And if it’s close financially – if neither candidate has more than a 2:1 edge – money usually won’t be the deciding factor. But stretch that difference to 3:1 or more and you’re putting one candidate at a huge disadvantage. Just ask the 81% of outspent candidates who’ve already fallen by the wayside this election year.

That’s why the race for campaign cash has been called the first primary. And it’s why political insiders handicap the elections by monitoring the latest FEC filings just as avidly as they monitor the polls.

If you want keep a tally yourself of the role that money is playing in winning this year’s elections, the Center for Responsive Politics has now posted its “race profiles” for the 2006 elections. You can select any state and see at a glance who’s running in which district and how much money they’ve raised to date. If you feel like handicapping next week’s primaries yourself, you might want to have a look at the Idaho and Arkansas pages.

It’s almost like sneaking a peak at the election returns a week in advance.