The main complaint I'm hearing from the left with regards to the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election is that Governor Scott Walker "bought" the election. He outspent Tom Barrett 7 to 1, and if it wasn't for that huge spending advantage, Walker would have been recalled. Observers seem to be using the recall as a textbook example of the idea that money determines elections. Note this exchange yesterday on NPR between Audie Cornish and Mara Liasson:
CORNISH: Now, supporters for Gov. Walker, Republicans outspent Barrett and the Democrats by about 7 to 1. And a lot of the GOP money came from large, out-of-state donors - you were talking about PACs there. And any lessons here for November?
LIASSON: Well, this is the biggest story in the campaign so far: Money matters. Republicans have it.Is that the right lesson to draw? What this election gave us is a rare and precious thing: a gubernatorial rematch. Walker and Barrett faced each other less than two years ago. Walker beat Barrett by five points back then, after raising $11 million to Barrett's $6 million. That is, Walker raised 65% of the funds raised by the Republican and Democratic candidates that year and he won 53% of the two-party vote. This week, Walker raised about 88% of the funds raised by the two candidates and he won -- wait for it -- 54% of the two-party vote.
So there's your money effect, folks. Go from a 2:1 money advantage to a 7:1 money advantage, and it could increase your vote share by a full percentage point! Woo hoo!
I don't mean to sound snide, but I'd say in general that if you pair the same candidates up against each other for the same office, you'll probably get similar results. And I'd say that the real lesson here is how little the electoral results changed after a vast change in financing. That is, the biggest story here is that money didn't matter all that much.
Update 1: Levitt (1994) used re-matches in congressional races to calculate the effects of spending on elections. The logic was that if you're just looking at the same candidates, you remove all the candidate-specific attributes of the race (notably, candidate quality) from the equation. He found that each additional $100,000 (in 1990 dollars) in challenger spending produced roughly 0.3 additional percentage points of the vote. Additional spending by incumbents produced no detectable effect.
If we apply that to this race, Barrett's spending fell by $2 million between 2010 and 2012. That's roughly $1.1 million in 1990 dollars. Following Levitt's findings, Barrett's vote share should have dropped by about 3 percentage points. In fact, his vote share only dropped by one point, suggesting that Barrett actually overperformed (at least by these two-decade old standards).
(h/t Brendan Nyhan)
Update 2: This post seems responsible for some degree of polarization, so allow me to revise and extend my remarks. I certainly wasn't asserting that nothing happened between the 2010 and 2012 elections in Wisconsin. Obviously, a great deal did. But it's not obvious whether those intervening events should have made things better or worse for Walker on balance. The union standoff probably hurt him, but that was a while ago, and the economy has improved there recently, which has probably helped him. The existence of the recall surely galvanized Walker's supporters as well as his opponents. Yes, Walker's approval ratings were in the low 40s last year and they've improved, but are we to believe this is all because of campaign spending?
My main point was that if you're going to claim that Walker bought the election or that his spending binge distorted the vote, you need to give us an idea of what his vote share should have been if not for all the spending. I don't really know what it should have been, but his vote share from less than two years ago against the same guy (plus an incumbency advantage?) struck me as a good place to start.