It’s Campaign Contributions and the Economy, Stupid–or is it?


When I first glanced at it, I didn’t quite know what to make of Jim McTague’s prediction in Barrons, or his system for arriving at it: that incumbents with big fundraising advantages will win their races. McTague thus argues that the GOP will hold Congress, that incumbents with bad poll numbers or in tight races like Sen. Conrad Burns in Montana or Sen. Robert Menendez in New Jersey will ride their campaign chests to victory, and that raising the most money is a sign of “superior grass-roots support.”

It’s not necessarily because I discounted his premise entirely; while I don’t think money equals grass-roots support, I do think that money lets you buy the next best thing–not only superior Get Out The Vote operations, but also, these days, superior means of identifying those you should be getting to the polls. But money really wasn’t the determining factor in McTague’s analysis. Rather, it was the economy, stupid:

It’s true that our formula isn’t foolproof. In 1958, 1974 and 1994, the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment was so strong that money didn’t trump voter outrage. We appreciate that voters in 2006 are hopping mad at the GOP because of the war and because of scandal. We just don’t agree that the outrage has reached the level of those earlier times. The reason is that the economy in 2006 is healthier. And the economy is the only other factor that figures in our analysis.

That makes for a slightly more interesting argument, but it seems to be missing some relevant information. In 1974 and 1994, the economy wasn’t the only thing that contributed to anti-incumbent sentiment (which both times was remarkably focused on just one party’s incumbents). In 1974, of course, it was the big one–Watergate–and it was Congress’s minority party, the Republicans, who were wiped out, while in 1994 it was a series of smaller things–from Rep. Dan Rostenkowsi’s payroll shenanigans to the check kiting scandal–that all added up to a sense that the Democratic Congress had lost touch with the people. Even that 1958 election was tainted by scandal–President Eisenhower interceded with the SEC on behalf of a businessman who paid hotel bills and gave gifts to Ike’s chief of staff (and once again it was incumbents of one party–this time Republicans–who suffered).

It will be interesting to see if the state of the economy–falling gas prices, low unemployment, and a Dow Jones Industrial Average cresting into record territory–is enough to offset what seems to me to be a series of congressional scandals that at a minimum are as serious as those of 1994. Do Americans think that Congress ensures that the good times keep rolling, or do they think that too many members of Congress have been having entirely too good of a time?

Update: Jay Cost adds some analysis on the money & incumbents question; I think he’s missed the “it’s the economy stupid” dimension to the Barrons article.