Post-Election Analysis: 2012 Toss-Up House Races

January 24, 2013

Before the election, the Brennan Center examined spending patterns in some of the most hotly contested House races in the country through the end of September. Now that the election is over, we have revisited some of the most important spending trends in the races that decided the battle for control of the House. This issue brief presents the Brennan Center's final analysis of spending patterns in the 29 toss-up House races identified by the Cook Political Report on Election Day 2012.

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Introduction

During the 2012 election, an influx of outside money—made possible by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United—shaped the political landscape. While most attention focused on the battle for the White House and Senate, control of the House of Representatives was at stake, too. On Election Day, Republicans retained control of the House. Democrats picked up just 8 of the 25 seats required to retake the chamber. Not surprisingly, candidates and outside groups raised and spent large sums in many House races.

Before the election, the Brennan Center examined spending patterns in some of the most hotly contested House races in the country through the end of September. Now that the election is over, we have revisited some of the most important spending trends in the races that decided the battle for control of the House. This issue brief presents the Brennan Center's final analysis of spending patterns in the 29 toss-up House races identified by the Cook Political Report on Election Day 2012.

Relying on post-election Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance filings, we examined three key spending patterns in these toss-up districts. First, we compared candidate spending to spending by party committees and independent outside groups through the duration of the campaign. Next, we reviewed the role small donors played in driving candidate fundraising. Finally, we analyzed outside group and party committee spending patterns over the final month of the campaign.

This analysis focuses on the total expenditures that have been publicly reported to the FEC. Due to FEC reporting requirements, tax-exempt groups must report their expenditures on "express advocacy," but they do not need to report expenditures on any so-called “issue ads” that they ran early in the campaign. Therefore, the figures cited in this issue brief understate the absolute totals of outside spending this election cycle.

Based on the Brennan Center's analysis of the 29 toss-up House races, several important trends emerge:

  • Overall, candidate spending accounted for just 46 percent of total spending. Candidates accounted for less than half of the total money spent in 19 of the 29 toss-up districts.
  • Outside group spending exceeded party committee spending, demonstrating the crucial role played by outside groups in shaping the electoral landscape in 2012. Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning outside groups together spent $88.5 million, while the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) together spent $79.7 million.
  • Disclosed Republican spending exceeded Democratic spending by about $33 million in the toss-up races: Including candidate, party committee, and outside group expenditures, Republicans spent $172.7 million, while Democrats spent $139.4 million. Republicans had a spending advantage in 23 of the 29 toss-up races, yet they won just 8 of these 23 races and lost the four races where they had the greatest spending advantage. Overall, in 16 of the 29 toss-up races, the party with the overall spending advantage in the district lost.
  • Republicans held an advantage in candidate spending and party committee spending, but the most significant driver of their overall spending advantage was outside spending. Republican-leaning super PACs and outside groups outspent their Democratic counterparts by $16 million and held the advantage in 22 of the 29 toss-up races. Aside from outside spending, much of the Republican overall spending advantage came from a single race: Florida's 18th district, where Republican Rep. Allen West outspent his opponent by $13.5 million and still lost.
  • Small donors—those giving $200 or less—did not play a significant role in fundraising for most Republican and Democratic candidates in the 29 toss-up House races. Republican candidates raised 16.4 percent of their money from small donations, and Democrats raised 12.7 percent. A single race—Florida's 18th district, where the incumbent West raised a staggering $9.5 million in small donations—accounts for much of this disparity. Excluding Florida's 18th district, Democratic candidates were nearly twice as reliant on small donors fundraising as their Republican opponents, raising 12.0 percent of their money from small donors, compared to just 6.2 percent for Republican candidates. Nationally, the DCCC was also far more reliant on small donor fundraising than its Republican counterpart, raising 38.6 percent of its total money from small donors, compared to just 15.9 percent for the NRCC.
  • About three-quarters of all disclosed non-candidate spending in the toss-up races occurred after September 30. One-half came during the final three weeks of the campaign.
  • Republicans held a significant advantage in disclosed non-candidate spending through the end of September and during the first three weeks of October. However, during the final two weeks of the campaign, the DCCC had a clear advantage over the NRCC, outspending them by $10.4 million in the toss-up races. The DCCC's spending advantage helped Democrats combat the Republicans’ super PAC spending advantage in the campaign’s home stretch. As a result, during the final two weeks of the campaign, Democrats actually had a slight non-candidate spending advantage over Republicans in these races.

Before the election, the Brennan Center's analysis of spending patterns in toss-up House races demonstrated the importance of outside group spending in shaping the 2012 election. Through the end of September, outside group spending was on par with party committee spending. Candidates had accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all spending, and Democratic and Republican candidates had yet to rely much on small donors for their fundraising. The key findings in this issue brief indicate that many of the trends we identified before the election continued through the end of the campaign —and in some cases, those trends solidified even further in the final weeks before November 6.

The candidate spending data in this issue brief are derived from the Center for Responsive Politics' compilation of data from candidates' FEC filings.3 We define small donations as those of $200 or less. FEC filings refer to these as “unitemized contributions”; donations larger than $200 are referred to as “itemized contributions” by the FEC. The independent expenditure data are based on the Brennan Center’s analysis of FEC filings.


Post-Election Analysis 2012 Toss-Up House Races