Sorry Democrats, Money Can’t Win Elections if You’re Ideologically Bankrupt

Make no mistake – this November will be a battle between big ideas and big money. The question is which will win out.

It’s been fascinating as a long-time political observer to watch the evolution of those competing trends. Some would dispute the characterization, but Republicans, at least recently, have focused on winning the money game. There have been manifold reasons for that approach, the most prominent of which is that President Obama has been so divisive that it was good enough political strategy to run against him rather than go out on a limb advocating for your own ideas.

But that dynamic is operating in reverse this election cycle. Republicans can no longer be reasonably branded the “Party of No.” Instead, they have coalesced around an agenda that is full of ideas. Rep. Paul Ryan has introduced an anti-poverty agenda, Sen. Mike Lee offered a conservative vision for tax policy, Sen. Rand Paul is working on transforming America’s prison system, Sen. Richard Burr has put together a market-driven replacement for Obamacare, and Sen. Marco Rubio has a plan to shake up the student loan racket.

In the meantime, Democrats have fallen behind. As Danny Vinik writes for the liberal magazine The New Republic, the Democratic Party faces a “growing problem. . . [t]heir ideas are growing stale.” Vinik goes on to argue that “in comparison to what Republicans have proposed, [Democrats’] ideas look small” or “leave many other issues unresolved.”

In place of ideas, Democrats are the party now reliant on the big, shadowy donors they once lambasted. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes:

Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats have made a campaign fetish of denouncing the Koch brothers and other rich conservative donors for allegedly buying elections. This turns out to be one of the great misdirection plays of all time because big money might save the Democratic Senate majority in November.

The untold story of this campaign is that Democrats are trouncing Republicans on fund-raising, fueled by those “big donors” and “special interests” they claim to despise. That Democrats remain competitive in so many close Senate election races despite low incumbent approval ratings is in large part a function of this spending advantage.

And it’s a big advantage. So far the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has outraised its GOP equivalent (NRSC) by $30 million. The Journal story notes that the DSCC will spend more for television ads in Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina than the NRSSC will spend in every state. And Harry Reid’s pet project—the Senate Majority PAC—has already raised $32 million, the vast majority of which come from millionaires and billionaires.

Unsurprisingly, that money has had an effect. Democrats in some competitive races are either narrowing the gap or opening a slight lead against their Republican challengers in large part because they have dominated the air wars. Many pundits and journalists have labeled this a Democratic “surge,” but the reality is much more nuanced. Sean Trende attempts to clear things up for RealClearPolitics:

“[Democrats have] succeeded in driving down Republican numbers, or holding them in check.  But they haven’t improved their own. Here, the Peters-Land race in Michigan is instructive.  In early September, Gary Peters’ lead was 3.8 points.  Today it is 5.4 points.   But his numbers are largely unmoved: 45.3 percent at the beginning of the month, 44.3 percent today.  Terri Lynn Land’s numbers, however, have tanked: from 41.5 percent to 38.9 percent.

But we know that this race will not have a 44.3 percent-38.9 percent outcome — sooner or later the undecided voters will begin to decide.  And given that the Democrats are winning the votes of almost everyone who approves of the president’s job, they will have an uphill — though hardly insurmountable — battle with undecided voters.

In other words, the vast amounts of money spent by Democrats has not made their candidates more palatable to voters or improved their “vote share,” it’s only succeeded in turning some voters away from Republicans. But if Democrats cannot break through the ceiling of their current levels—an outcome that appears likely so long as President Obama’s job approval remains in the tank—then the outcome of the election will lean on independent voters, an idea that should buoy Republican hopes.

As it turns out, money can’t buy everything, especially if you’re ideologically bankrupt.