Against the odds

When I embarked on the campaign this year, my biggest fear was the influx of cash after the Citizens United decision. I was working with House races, and we saw in 2010 how SuperPACs came into races like the CA-03 and just decimated the competition.

If you haven’t listened to “Take the Money and Run for Office” from This American Life that tells the story of that race, it’s worth a few minutes.

So, when we got to 2012, the landscape looked challenging, to say the least. With MoveOn’s coordinated campaign’s team, we were looking to endorse a few Senators and about forty House candidates who responded to the 99Elect questionnaire and who won a majority of votes from MoveOn members in the state or district.

We knew that in many cases we would be outspent 10 to 1, but we had no idea what lengths outside groups would go to try to take down their opponents. In Ohio, alone, the GOP spent $40 million dollars to try to unseat Sherrod Brown. But, some of the House races were even more incredible by comparison, setting records for spending.

The interesting development is that for the first time in a long time, a few candidates emerged victorious in spite of being outspent. For example, in the case of Sherrod Brown, the spending just didn’t work: (Gannett)

“A lot of groups spent a lot of money and got bumkis for it,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor for reporting at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan good-government group that analyzed the impact of outside spending on the 2012 election.

There are lot of reasons why Sherrod Brown won, including but not limited to the fact that he is a real champion for the auto industry in Ohio. However, as Kiely goes on to warn:

“There were plenty of big check writers in this race,” Kiely said. “It’s not like all the outside money there went for naught.”

We may have found the saturation point for spending on ads and ‘air assault’ campaigning, but that doesn’t mean that we are safe in the future from the time-tested maxim that “money wins elections.

This election was truly a win for organizing. In many races around the country and in the Presidential race, good old fashioned face-to-face contact (with very specific people who were identified through very sophisticated analysis of voter data) won the day. CNN explains the advantage of Democrats over Republicans in field work:

“When it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era,” Sasha Issenberg, a journalist and an expert in the science of campaigning, wrote just days before the election proved him right. “No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example.”

As proud as we can and should be about this victory, we can’t rest on our laurels.

Elections decide the direction of the future and when so much is at stake, people don’t make the same mistakes twice. It’s time to turn our attention to getting money out of politics once and for all. The campaign to undo Citizens United will be long and difficult. If we learned anything from this cycle, it’s that sometimes you can win against the odds.


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