Congressional candidates have started to shake their collection tins. Most candidates see fundraising as a top priority, as an unfortunate necessity so they can pay staff, run polls, travel and, most of all, run advertisements. The media fixates similarly on money — analyzing fundraising hauls, ranking candidates and pontificating on what it all means.

It’s all overblown. When you ask, “Is anybody actually persuaded by these political ads?” The answer is: not really. There’s plenty of research showing that money has little effect on the outcome of congressional races. Voters hold their political affiliation tightly and their grip is unlikely to be broken by a congressional campaign, no matter how much money it has raised. Split ticket voting is increasingly rare — meaning that the national environment and upper-ballot races are far more important than any congressional candidate’s political messaging.

While political ads might not sway the outcome of a general election, they are useful:

  1. When a candidate is unknown. Political ads are good at telling voters that a candidate exists. They can build name recognition and give voters a first impression. Political ads are bad at persuading voters to change their mind about a candidate they already know. These dynamics make fundraising more important for lesser known candidates . This means that advertisements are more important for challengers than for better known incumbents. Once candidates have raised enough money to build name recognition, their efforts have diminishing returns. Similarly, in races heavily covered by the media where candidates are well known, political ads don’t have much effect.
  2. In primaries. Unlike in the general election, primary voters are choosing between candidates only from their team1Unless it’s an open primary, in which case there will be some non-party members.. They don’t have their minds made up along partisan lines and are more willing to swing between candidates. Additionally, primary candidates are usually less well known than general election candidates and, as discussed in #1,  ads are more effective for political unknowns.
  3. As an election indicator. While fundraising may not be that important in actually persuading voters or determining the election outcome, it is a sign of grassroots support. It also indicates who donors think will win. Donors want to tie themselves to the winning horse, so the strongest candidates are also more likely to tally big fundraising numbers.
  4. In building a media narrative. The media loves to cover political advertisements — just look at the coverage of the 2018 Georgia Gubernatorial election. Brian Kemp’s ads got national and local press — likely reaching more voters than the advertisements themselves. Candidates can put out ads in order to establish a media narrative — and it works. Mark McKinnon, a media advisor to several Republican presidential candidates, said in an interview with NPR “sometimes, we just put out an ad, and it’ll only be up for a day. And we knew that it wouldn’t get seen by voters, but it would get coverage by reporters.”

So, what does this mean for first quarter fundraising totals (all of which became available April 15)? The big picture: look for totals outside the normal range as these could be signals that an incumbent is vulnerable or that a challenger is particularly formidable. For battleground incumbents, a haul of about $250,000 to $500,000 looks normal. For challengers (non-incumbents), than number is about $50,000 to $100,000. For most congressional races, though, their hours and hours of ‘phone time’ are trivial. Come the general, candidates from both parties will be flush with cash and have no problem establishing name recognition.

Later this week we’ll dig into these Q1 fundraising numbers for the 2020 battleground
districts2Those rated “Toss Ups” by either Sabato’s Crystal Ball or The Cook Political Report and what it means for the candidates and races there. Sneak peak: The biggest fundraiser in any of these races was Antonio Delgado from NY-19 with a whopping $755,000.