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Post-Election Analysis: 2012 Toss-Up House Races

  • Sundeep Iyer
Published: 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.


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.