Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

Stretching your political dollars

October 5th, 2008, 3:03pm by Sam Wang


When you give money to political campaigns, you deserve to see good value for your donation. Democrats are well positioned to win the White House and make substantial gains in the House and Senate. Where is your money most effective?

I don’t ask for donations to keep this site going. Instead, I ask people to make efforts where they will have the greatest leverage. That’s the point of the “power of your vote” calculation in the right sidebar, which shows the power of individual voters – for instance, through get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.

You might be surprised to know that the best place to put your donations is not the national race. After the jump is an argument for giving to knife-edge races. If you agree, go to my ActBlue page. My advice pertains to Democrats and Republicans alike, so here is the NRSC site.

Previously I recommended an ad by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. However, the national race has moved decidedly toward Obama. I am not claiming that the race is over – quite the contrary. I am saying that donations at that level will make a nearly-unmeasurable difference in the outcome.

Your money is beter spent on Senate races. This year, each vote gained is a step toward a filibuster-proof majority (60 votes). In the other direction, the NRSC points out that the Republicans are just two votes away from regaining a majority – highly unlikely, but that’s what they say.

Furthermore, you should focus on races that are neck and neck, where your donation has the most leverage. Currently, the closest races are ones where the incumbent is a Republican: Oregon (D-Merkley vs. R-i-Smith) and Minnesota (D-Franken vs. R-i-Coleman). Assuming that other races go to the candidate with a >80% win probability, if Democrats win both races the Senate will be 58-42. If Republicans win, it will be 56-44.

I’ll update this link as races shift. Please give, and thank you for reading the site.

Update: I’m adding Georgia (D-Martin vs. R-i-Chambliss), which currently has Chambliss up by only 3%. I’m broadening the definition of toss-up to races that would become toss-ups after a 2% swing. A Democratic win would bring the Senate to 59-41.

Sam Wang

P.S. Also consider getting my book Welcome To Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How To Drive. It’s science, not politics. But it’s a good read!

Tags: 2008 Election · Site News

11 Comments so far ↓

  • DavidNYC

    Shouldn’t the “knife-edge” consideration be balanced out by a campaign’s existing resources and expected outside spending? If you add $50 on top of a $3m senate-race warchest, that’s not quite the same bang-for-the-buck as adding $50 to a $300K house-race warchest.

  • Sam Wang

    DavidNYC, the particular example you give would also require quantification of the relative value of a Senate seat and a House seat.

    In the House the majority makes the rules, and in the Senate a determined minority can block action. I have worked as a member of both House and Senate staffs, and seen these dynamics at work in person. An extra Senate seat is at least 10 times as valuable as an extra House seat, perhaps much more. Therefore House races, while important, are not the place to give for maximum return. The Senate is the key to legislative action in 2009.

    By the way, your comment lacks a valid email address.

  • JJtw

    Dear Sam,

    First of all, kudos to your site and your analysis. I’ve been having doubts about 538 lately and you were the first reputable Google I came up with when I tried to see who agreed. I think you’ll make up a substantial part of my polling diet in weeks to come. However, I must leaven my compliments with a bit of criticism.

    I think your argument above is perhaps correct in conclusion for the special case of the 2008 elections, but wrong in general and also employs faulty argumentation. First of all, you can dispense with the argument from authority (“I have worked as a member of both House and Senate staffs”).

    Second, I think your determination of the value of seats gained would depend on the distance from a threshold of significance, the value of an individual seat, as well as the relative size of the campaign contribution. The important thresholds for the House are 1/2 and 2/3, while the Senate also has an additional important 3/5 threshold.

    For example, your argument above would strictly have been wrong in 2006 when it was clearly possible to capture (or hold) one legislative house (the House) and impossible to capture (or not hold) the other (the Senate). In fact, had Democrats won all possible seats in 2006 (15) they would technically have gotten the barest 3/5 majority and the ability to invoke cloture. However, realistically, that was impossible as that would have required defeating at least 3 incumbents who were known to be on their way to landslide victories: Lugar IN (87.3%), Snowe ME (74.4%), Thomas WY (70%).

  • JJtw

    Sorry for the terse post. I didn’t quite elaborate on all conditions.

    The 3 important thresholds for the Senate include:

    1/2: the ability to set the rules for the session;
    3/5: the ability to invoke cloture;
    2/3: the ability to override a veto;

    For the House, only the 1st and third thresholds matter.

    I included 2/3 only to be complete, because the balance of power changes significantly for each partition of seats according to those thresholds. This has actually been important in times that one party held the executive branch and the other the legislative (like when Eisenhower had an overwhelmingly Democratic congress).

    In any event, my example of 2006 turns out to have been too simple, and due to my hastiness, also possibly wrong. My apologies. But, the logic I was trying to communicate was correct, despite the faulty example. Assume that in a particular year, the Democrats are defending 16 Senate seats and they hold a 17 seat majority in the Senate. Also consider that the Democrats also hold a majority of any size (but let’s say it is 50 seats for the sake of discussion) in the House (and of course they are defending every seat). For a short-term strategy (ie the next session of congress) it is logically impossible to change the balance of power in the Senate electorally. However, even though difficult, it would be possible to change it in the House. As a result, no amount of donations to the Senate would result in it changing hands, but sufficient help to the House could successfully flip it for the Republicans (or conversely, successfully defend it for the Democrats).

    Let me emphasize, this year, you are absolutely correct. All else being equal, the sheer possibility of getting 3/5 in the Senate (however small) outweighs any considerations in the House. But it need not be that way. And to add to that, might I suggest that a donation to the Texas Senate race might have special inpact, in it might help evict or retain one of only 9 Senators (all Republicans, including Cornyn of Texas) who voted in favor of a torture amendment in 2005? I won’t recommend a particular direction of donation of course. It depends on whether you like torture or not. ;-)

  • Sam Wang

    I agree that the argument from authority was gratuitous. However, the main 2/3 threshold in the House, for a veto override, is unlikely to be the highest barrier to enacting legislation next year. Otherwise the House operates like a big game of Calvinball, and the minority gets bupkis.

    Also, consider my argument more carefully. The general rule is to donate where the effects are marginally maximized. The specific application depends on conditions. This year the conditions are a guaranteed majority in the House, and a majority of 55 seats or more in the Senate. In this case one more Senate seat is worth much more than one (or even more) House seats.

  • Walter

    Now that’s one for the 12th grade government textbooks: “The House operates like a big game of Calvinball.”

    There are actually more margins of significance in the Senate this year thanks to Lieberman. If the Democrats get at least 52 seats (51 with the presidency) they can boot him out of the caucus and still hold the majority. Looks like this is going to happen by the numbers.

    I confess I’m not as familiar with the record of the Senate as I should be; how strongly do cloture votes split among party lines? It seems like counting seats by party in an effort to reach the magic 60 might be a little disingenuous thanks to those few moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

  • Martha

    While I agree that the folks lower down the ticket could use some Democratic dollars right now, I think it’s a mistake to consider those races separately from the Presidential one. Obama’s ground game will increase Democratic turnout, which is in turn good for Dems lower on the ballot. So it’s not as though your Obama contributions fail to help Congressional races–it’s just more indirect. However, it’s true that the O2B candidates could use more direct funding support.

  • Ian

    Even assuming that Senate seats are worth more, it still makes sense to see how much money is going into each particular Senate race. Presumably OR, MN, and NC (why wasn’t it on your lists) races all cost about the same since they’re similarly-sized, but what if the NH race was still close. Fifty bucks would probably go further there than in NC, for example.

  • Rachel Findley

    Obama will face a godawful mess on Inauguration Day. Here and abroad, we’re in deep trouble.

    Obama will need a large popular and electoral margin to support his vision, integrity, and competence. A bare win will be better than no win, of course, and comfortable margins in House and Senate will help, but a big victory in the Presidential contest will give him room to rise to the challenges the nation faces.

    So, keep the energy going in those parts of the national race that build for the future. For me, that means no more negative ads at this point(whew!)–just building positive imagery and local organizing, including identifying leaders, listing supporters and building local and regional networks that will be useful in future elections as well as in legislative work.

    So, as my local community is almost excessively organized, I’m on my way to Nevada.

  • Sam Wang

    Ian, NC (Hagan) is not competitive – she’s currently definitively ahead of Dole. Such a condition can change, and I will update as appropriate. It is true that one can get fancier in one’s calculations, but this is overkill compared with the first-order recommendation. So: MN and OR.

  • Michael Thomas

    Whether an “argument from authority” is questionable depends in large part on the quality and appropriateness of the purported skill or knowledge underlying the assertion.

    The classic example is medical advice: if you have a brain tumor advice from your neurologists is presumably to be given greater weight than advice from your auto mechanic, however advice from an actor who portrays a neurologist – however convincingly – is not.

    Assuming that the poster above has actually had staff experience working for a members of both the House and Senate you can question the analysis, but logically absent a good reason to suppose otherwise it would be reasonable to regard his or her opinion has more useful and accurate than that of someone who’s never done either and it’s not studied the question for some other reason.

    So in this case a more valid example of a questionable argument from authority would be for example the same argument presented by a pundit who once served in the executive branch, and thus feels qualified to analyze the workings of the House or Senate.