Can Fundraising Pressures Influence Elections and Democracy?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Leann Mclaren, covers the new article by Danielle M. Thomsen, University of California, Irvine, “Competition in Congressional Elections: Money versus Votes”.

With election day only being a week away media outlets have been discussing the over $4.8 billion dollars spent so far on the 2022 midterm elections. The projections for that total are expected to surpass $9.3 billion by the end of the cycle, shattering the previous totals for the 2018 midterm election ($7.1 billion).

With this tremendous increase in spending on elections, many are pondering what this means for the types of candidates we see on the ballot, as well as those who end up being able to compete and win. These questions and more are addressed in an article recently published by Danielle Thomsen. In it she investigates how the competitiveness of an election can be assessed via an usual tool—money.

While many Americans may presume that the decision to run in an election is a fair game for the average citizen, Thomsen suggests that it may be much more dependent on the monetary resources you are able to fundraise than you may think. She investigates how to measure the competitiveness of an election through several analyses of pre-election receipts. Thomsen ends up concluding that when one analyzes competition through a monetary lens as compared to just vote shares, fewer candidates are likely to be viable, and not as many races are competitive. Thomsen departs from many of her colleagues in introducing the idea that pre-election campaign receipts can help assess the quality of competition, as opposed to just examining the actual votes each candidate received after the winner is announced.

To test her claims about the importance of money in electoral competition, Thomsen compiled a dataset of pre-election campaign receipts in US House primaries from 1980 to 2020. This dataset contains information on over 33,000 House candidates who filed fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and/or were on the ballot for the primaries in that period. In her analyses, Thomsen only considers Democratic and Republican primaries, with a final number of 16,300 primaries.

These primates are categorized into several types of races. The categories are based on seat type (open seat, challenger-party, or incumbent-contested) and district partisanship (advantaged, disadvantaged, or balanced). Primaries are open-seat if there are no incumbents in the race, challenger-party if there is an incumbent running in the other party primary, and incumbent-contested if there is an incumbent in the primary. Primaries are considered disadvantaged if the party garnered less than 42.5% of the general vote in the previous or current presidential election, balanced if they received between 42.5% and 57.5%, and advantaged if they accumulated over 57.5%. To assess competitiveness across race types, Thomsen crafts several measures. The first set of measures compares vote shares and receipts to examine whether the race was competitive. The vote share measures captured whether the winner of the race received less than 57.5% of the vote and won within 20 percentage points of the runner up. The fundraising measures captured the same totals just with fundraising receipts. The last set of measures examined the total and viable number of candidates in a race depending on their share of the final vote count and pre-election receipts.

“If primary candidates are faced with enormous fundraising pressures to even be considered a viable candidate in securing their parties’ nominations, it may limit those who are able to run, and impact the extent to which the candidates citizens elect are representative of their interests.” Thomsen found that primaries are generally less competitive if we use the amount of money candidates fundraised versus their vote totals. Particularly in open-seat primaries, which are considered the most open landscape for competition and where numerous candidates might have an actual chance, the number of viable candidates decreases by about half in primaries in safe districts, and by 40% in those in competitive districts. This means that the amount of money candidates are able to raise before the election influences their ability to be seen as candidates who actually have a chance at winning and securing seats.

Thomsen’s findings have implications for a reassessment of the American electoral system. If primary candidates are faced with enormous fundraising pressures to even be considered a viable candidate in securing their parties’ nominations, it may limit those who are able to run, and impact the extent to which the candidates citizens elect are representative of their interests.

  • Leann Mclaren is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University where she studies American Politics, with a focus on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient (NSF-GRFP) and an APSA Minority Fellowship Program recipient. Leann’s dissertation explores how Black immigrant candidates navigate identity in political campaigns. Her other projects include mapping Black political behavior generally, specifically in the realms of social movements, and political participation. Leann holds a B.A. from the University of Connecticut and was an APSA Ralph Bunche Summer Institute Scholar.
  • Article details: THOMSEN, DANIELLE, M. 2022. “Competition in Congressional Elections: Money versus Votes.”   American Political Science Review, 1-17
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

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