Structure or Strategy?

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Matthew Yglesias touches on some of the issues raised in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s new book, Off-Center, on why congressional elections are so uncompetitive:

As a general matter, gerrymandering is less important to the declining competitiveness of congressional elections than is generally believed. State boundaries haven’t changed at all in decades, but Senate races are becoming less competitive, too. The main problem here is that elections are becoming increasingly expensive. Since the parties have only so much cash to spread around, they tend to target only a few races, leaving most of the country grossly uncompetitive.

Well, I’m for public financing, and gerrymander reform, on principle, but one can’t rule out a third factor here: namely, that the parties have plenty of cash to spread around, but they spread it around counter-productively. Here’s a recent paper by Jonathan Krasno and Donald Green of Yale:

[P]arty campaign committees generally take charge in identifying the hottest races. They interview candidates, evaluate their chances of victory, and establish funding priorities. Their allies among interest groups and private donors follow their lead, opening their wallets for contenders in targeted races while rebuffing less likely candidates. The results of this targeting process are evident in FEC reports. In 2004, 33 challengers spent over $2 million while nearly 200 spent less than $100,000….

Doing so leads, Krasno and Green argue, to diminishing returns:

[I]t is hard to peg the exact point at which the returns from campaign spending become so negligible as to be worthless. Still, it is safe to say for the vast majority of candidates that the impact of expenditures beyond $1 million is heavily attenuated. What that means is simple: spending past $1 million gains far fewer votes (and maybe none at all) than does earlier spending.

Seventy challengers in 2004 spent between $100,000 to $500,000, and 19 of them won at least 40 percent of the vote. Boosting their spending by as little as $50,000 or $100,000 would have a discernable effect on their chances, while increasing expenditures by $500,000 in an expensive race would likely have little effect. Parties ignore long shots because viewed individually no single candidate has a particularly good chance of winning. But as a group, long shots are ripe with possibility because of their numbers and because their low spending gives parties a chance to influence their chances. Targeting overlooks many potential winners….

To be clear, I do think gerrymandering and a lack of publicly-financed campaigns stand in the way democracy, but it also seems likely that Democrats aren’t doing all they can to stay competitive in the current system.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate