Voters are increasingly making choices based on personality of a specific candidate and what they feel they have in common in terms of their beliefs. And they don’t care so much about party and platform at all. So when Texas Democratic nominee for Senate, Beto O’Rourke Tweets: “We’re not running against anyone, any party, or anything”, of course it’s wishful thinking, and the kind of thing a lot of politicians would say, but it’s also becoming a reality.
According to the Federal Election Commission, the Republican Party has raised more money than the Democratic Party heading in this election season: $531-million to $471-million. But if you look at money raised not by party, but by individual candidates, the totals tilt the other way: Democrats hold the edge. In just the House races considered to be competitive Democratic candidates have raised $252-million compared to Republican candidates’ $172-million. And in money from small donors, that margin’s even steeper: $46-million going to Democrats compared to $15-million to Republicans. And that’s not all centered around a few “rock star” candidates. According to projections by fivethirtyeight, 73 Democrats running for the House will have individually raised $2-million or more, versus just 17 Republicans.
Does that mean anything on its own? Of course not. No matter how much money anybody’s raised they’ll still have to win in order to win. But it does give us hints about how a lot of voters these days are thinking, and how that thinking has changed.
One might also assume that the phenomenon of Democrats outraising Republicans could be something very specific to this election season. But the trend of money flowing from individuals to individual candidates, rather than to a centralized party operation that then metes out funds to candidates as they see fit, is a change that’s not changing back. The days when people could go into the voting booth and simply vote the party line by checking the box for “Democrat” or “Republican” are nearly totally gone. Even in Texas, where it’s still possible to do that, it won’t be after this year.
And it didn’t used to be that way at all.
When we were growing up, we remember our parents occasionally donating money to individual candidates for public office, but mostly they gave directly to the party they supported. As far as we know, except in Presidential races, they never gave any money to candidates outside the district in which they voted. We do remember one family friend who was a real maverick and sought out candidates with positions on issues that were important to them. But then most of the time that person’s contribution was a letter of encouragement and maybe a small check, and there was certainly no organized effort of any kind.
Now that’s all changing. Nonprofit organizations like ActBlue, which operate online, allow people to match up their interests with candidates all over the country, sending out small amounts to a smattering of political hopefuls who capture their imagination, even though those candidates, if elected, won’t actually be representing them. The number of contributions collected by ActBlue’s online fundraising tool has tripled this year over 2016, and the amount raised has doubled.
Where does Trump fit in to all of this? His success has really solidified the concept that everything’s about the personality of an individual candidate, and very specific political issues designed to push buttons among groups of voters. We’ve suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seemingly odd move of talking about cutting things like Social Security and Medicare ahead of the election is really an effort to establish the fact to life-long Conservatives that the Republican Party still has a platform, or at least their platform is not just “Trump”.
Of course, personality is nothing new to politics: many people voted for JFK, or Obama before Trump, not because they were Democrats, but because they were moved by them. But Trump has taken it to an extreme, starting with “I alone can fix it” and extending to his set of extremely divisive issues and threats that he rolls out — as he’s doing now — every time he needs to drive his supporters to the polls.
Only now we’re seeing that approach swinging back the other way: with candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, who did not initially have party support, but moved voters with her personality and her message, and also campaigned on a very consistent and specific set of issues. And not surprisingly, Trump is trying to portray candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez as extremely divisive, and real threats.
One thing that puzzles us is why so much of the money that’s being raised by both parties still seems to be going to TV ads. Maybe even more than ever. Anyone who’s turned on a TV in the past couple of days will probably agree with that assessment. While the ads haven’t changed very much (and their over-saturation hasn’t either), we do believe their purpose has shifted.
Might’ve been at one time political ads were aimed at changing people’s minds about who they were going to vote for. Now they seem to serve only one of 2 purposes:
- To get people fired up about voting for the person they’re already going to vote for.
- To increase name recognition of a particular candidate, particularly if they’re running against an incumbent.
Just a quick footnote: we began today talking about Beto O’Rourke and we wanted to come back to him for a moment, because we want to discuss his chances of actually winning. He’s been closing in the polls recently to the point where the respected Cook Political Report now categorizes the Texas Senate battle as a “toss up”. But we’ve gained confidence for another reason: It’s because the people we know in Texas are telling us O’Rourke yard signs are greatly outnumbering those in support of Republican Ted Cruz. Vox is reporting the same thing. As we’ve discussed before, we believe yard signs are an udervalued indicator. The reason we put so much faith in yard signs? Anybody who’s going to take the time to put up a yard sign is 100% going to take the time to vote. In fact, the huge number of Trump yard signs in Pennsylvania — even just outside Hillary Clinton’s headquarters — is what convinced us he was going to win in 2016.