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Do the Math: Why Expanding the Playing Field in 2006 Is Actually a Very, Very Smart Idea

by Ruy Teixeira

Ron Brownstein had an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times the other day on an idea near and dear to the hearts of many Democratic activists: expanding the Congressional playing field in 2006 so that as many as 100 seats are contested, instead of the handful of "targeted" seats that typically get all the funding and support from the Democratic campaign apparatus.

It's a strategy I happen to agree with. If pursued, I believe it would substantially improve the Democrats' chances of retaking the House in 2006, particularly in a year when Republican incumbents are going to be hard-pressed to find much positive to run on.

But, as Brownstein points out in the article, many influential Democrats don't agree with this assessment, particularly, of course, those intimately associated with the conventional targeting approach:

But the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], and many leading Democratic strategists, say that funding a wider circle of challengers in heavily Republican areas would divert money better spent on districts more closely balanced between the parties....

Diverting money to long-shot contests is "what the Republicans would want to see," [Mark] Gersh [head of the National Committee for an Effective Congress and a longtime strategist for Democrats] said. "This kind of craziness would exactly play into Republican hands."

This attitude is too bad, because the fact is that it is expanding the playing field, not traditional targeting, that has the strongest mathematics behind it. Deeming the former strategy "crazy" just demonstrates a fundamental failure to do the math carefully, relying instead on the sloppy assumptions of the conventional wisdom.

The logic and basic math behind expanding the playing field is lucidly explained in a forthcoming article by political scientists Jonathan Krasno of Binghampton and Donald Green of Yale. Here are some excerpts from their essay that summarize the case against targeting and for contesting a wide range of seats:

....[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.

The logic behind targeting is hard to argue with. Funders try to put their money where they assume it will matter most, in close races where a slight shove in either direction might mean the difference between victory and defeat. Smart bettors, they avoid long shots, reasoning that their faint hopes of winning do not warrant an investment. A few thousand more dollars may mean everything to a candidate teetering on the edge of 50 percent of the vote, but little to one struggling to get to 40 percent. Viewed in this light, targeting makes perfect sense.

Or does it? It is easy to see why targeting has been bad for the public since it leaves so few congressional elections contested. In 2004 just 30 House elections were decided by 10 percentage points or less, a remarkably small number. The more relevant question is whether targeting has served parties’ interests. Has it helped them make the most of the resources and win elections? In this essay, we argue that targeting – the parties’ narrow focus on a small number of highly competitive races – has been at best counterproductive and at worst disastrous for them....

....[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.

Targeted races are inevitably among the most expensive in country with both sides going all out to help their candidate across the finish line. Diminishing marginal returns mean that the effect of their help is severely limited. Put another way, campaign spending is like moving a boulder up a hill. The higher the dollar altitude, the steeper the path becomes and the less the boulder moves with the same force. By concentrating on races where the paths are steepest, the parties (who are pushing against one another anyway) move very few voters....

Because of diminishing returns, we know that a large investment in an expensive race will bring few votes, while a small investment in a cheaper race may bring many. Parties shy away from the latter on the grounds that hopeless candidates are hopeless causes. But the math says different. Suppose that we could increase the odds of twenty candidates from 5 to 10 percent for the same cost of helping two candidates with 45 percent chances get to 50 percent. By helping the twenty hapless candidates, we would increase the expected number of victories from 20 x 0.05 = 1 to 20 x 0.10 = 2. By helping the well-heeled candidates, we would increase the expected number of victories from 2 x .45 = 0.90 to 2 x .50 = 1. The first investment portfolio has an expected return of 1 additional victory, while the second one is just one-tenth of an additional victory.

That is a fairly realistic scenario. 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....

The bottom line is that targeting does not help parties win elections. Instead, it impels them into high-spending races where the value of their contributions is minimal. The narrow group of targeted contests excludes many other elections where they have a distinct, albeit distant, chance of winning. By focusing so sharply on top-tier races, the parties effectively narrow the playing field in congressional elections, limiting their potential gains. And, all of their actions are predicated on their ability to predict which races will be close well before the election, an inherently dubious endeavor....

...Parties need to remember that for them congressional elections are an aggregate enterprise. Candidates think of themselves, but parties cannot afford to become too caught up in any single race. Their goals are aggregate and their strategy is national – maximizing their gains demands a disciplined and rational investment strategy that is truly national in its scope.

And that rational, national strategy is to expand the playing field to 100 seats in 2006. If the Democrats want to maximize their chances of retaking the House in 2006, that's exactly what they should do.