Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dr. Ray's Question: Does campaign spending reveal preferences of the Federal government?

The good Dr. Daniel Ray of the glorious Commonwealth of Virginia asks:


Does the disparity of spending in swing states vs non-swing by all parties involved highlight the shortcomings of the electoral college system in ensuring that the system equally values (in monetary and public policy terms) each citizen regardless of what state they happen to live in? If so, what's the benefit of this system that outweighs that shortcoming?


Geez.  A doozy.  An official doozy.  Let's get to it.

First, the spending in both swing and non-swing states really comes from a variety of sources - the candidates pockets, of course, the parties, and political action committees (the last of which have virtually unlimited spending rights as long as they remain adequately ambiguous in their phrasing).  

Secondly, the spending is really a reflection less of the benefits those states derive from the Federal government and more of their potential to influence the presidential election.  This, in turn, is not so much a reflection of the total population of those states (though of course, in determining the number of electors in that state it is not insignificant) but a reflection of the closeness of the state.  This is, itself, a factor derived from the fact that most of these states are houses divided - they have highly distinct regional subcultures which are economically and electorally divided and politically activated.  Consider - there are really three Ohios - Rustbelt Ohio, midwestern agricultural Ohio, and Appalachian Ohio.  The same is true for the other states, for instance Virginia with the "conservative" Appalachian west and southwest, Southside, Tidewater, and Eastern Shore and "progressive" northern and central Virginia. 

What this means is that changing a percentage point in terms of outcome could result in a different electoral outcome within the state which means that ALL of the electoral votes shift one direction or the other.  

Okay, but to the point - does this mean that swing states tend to correlate with fiscal and legislative priorities of the Union?  Well, there is reason to suspect that the answer is no - specifically given that the Presidency largely has influential power over legislative priorities, as opposed to Congress whose powers are far more explicit and immediate.  How can we tell? Easily enough: 

First, the swing-states are generally regarded as including Ohio ($73 million), Colorado ($29 million), Florida ($67 million), Iowa ($25 million), Nevada ($22 million), New Hampshire ($21 million), North Carolina ($24 million), Pennsylvania ($8 million), Virginia ($53 million), and Wisconsin ($12 million) [source - National Journal]

Secondly, the states (and District) that receive the most funding from the Federal government (figures are in dollars paid to these states versus dollars paid by taxpayers of these states) are New Mexico ($2.63), West Virginia ($2.57), Mississippi ($2.47), the District of Colombia ($2.41), Hawai'i ($2.38), Alabama ($2.03), Alaska ($1.93), Montana ($1.92), South Carolina ($1.92), and Maine ($1.78) [source - Mother Jones]


Just eyeballing this data, I'd say that folk spend money where they need it to win, but Congress spends money where people are poor or where Americans maintain and train their military forces.  

So, does the spending illegitimate the system? Not really.  Do I think it an enormous waste that borders on offensive?  Oh, you betcha'.