In the main EA Forum post on the Flynn Congressional campaign loss, a comment thread got into the research on primary campaign spending.

MHarris: How much did the $13 million shift the odds? That's the key question. The conventional political science on this is skeptical that donations have much of an effect on outcomes (albeit it's a bit more positive about lower profile candidates like Carrick) https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/money-and-elections-a-complicated-love-story/...

JoshYou: Fundraising is particularly effective in open primaries, such as this one. From the linked article:

"But in 2017, Bonica published a study that found, unlike in the general election, early fundraising strongly predicted who would win primary races. That matches up with other research suggesting that advertising can have a serious effect on how people vote if the candidate buying the ads is not already well-known and if the election at hand is less predetermined along partisan lines."

Owen Cotton-Barratt: Although early fundraising could be correlational with success rather than causal, if it's an indicator of who can generate support from the electorate...

Here's a few key points from Bonica 2017 (main link, sci-hub link), along with spending data for the Salinas and Flynn campaigns.

Summary:

  • Money predicts victory in contested primaries. In contested primaries (like Carrick was involved in), the candidate who raises the most money usually wins.
  • Early fundraising deficit is predictive of dropping out of the race in the first 90 days.
  • Fundraising brings more support from professional political organizations like the DCCC.
  • "One challenge in estimating campaign spending effects is that fundraising is likely endogenous to the probability of winning. If donors are actively targeting candidates who are most likely to be elected, causality could flow in reverse."

Bonica's causal model by which money buys elections is never crisply stated, but has two main parts. First, early money keeps candidates from dropping out early on. Second, it garners them support from professional political organizations and enables them to buy the advertising and other things their campaign needs. However, this only matters in elections where there's a real chance for any candidate to win, such as contested primaries.

According to New Statesman, by April 15th, Flynn had received 60% more itemized donation money than his opponent, Salinas, but 80% of Salinas's itemized donations were from in-state donors, as compared to 2.5% of Flynn's itemized donations.

In terms of outside spending, Flynn had by the end received $12,329,074 to Salinas's $1,689,530. Flynn received about 7x more outside money than Salinas.

Here's Bonica's regression for the probability of victory vs. the candidate's share of total fundraising.

Flynn had about a 90% total fundraising share, so, eyeballing it, this model would have predicted he'd have about an 85% chance of victory. Instead, his main opponent, Salinas, received about twice as many votes as Flynn.

Bonica didn't look at the degree to which a candidate's share of in-state money predicted their chance of victory. I'd be very curious to see such an analysis. I'd also love to see a regression between fundraising share and vote share. We may also have a case of reverse causality on our hands, in which Sam Bankman-Fried, Flynn's largest donor, targeted him not for his chance of winning, but for his alignment with SBF's own political agenda.

Based on Bonica's proposed mechanism by which money can influence a contested primary, it seems like a little seed money is what does the trick, not a tsunami of cash.

Musings:

If this "seed, not a tsunami" model is right, then this suggests a political strategy for consideration by EAs. EAs with strong pre-existing ties to their local community should run for office widely. SBF and other donors should give them enough seed money to see them securely through the early campaign, but not enough to be gauche.

Although we have some available research and expertise in how to win elections and pick winners, EA has more specific questions. How do we support EA-aligned people in building political careers without astroturfing, in ways that the electorate and the candidates themselves would find palatable? Do the issues and personal styles common to the EA movement afford special advantages or cause special challenges for candidates in contested primaries?

To answer these questions, we probably need the data that only comes from experience. Finding ways to enter politics more widely, but treading lightly with the amount of support we give to individual candidates, would probably give us a lot of useful information that we can't get just by reading published research and consulting with experts about their expertise with candidates who don't consider themselves to be in the EA movement.

It seems like we could roadmap the earliest stages of campaign-building for interested EAs. Why isn't it easy for me to look up a beautiful 80,000 Hours article on how to build a campaign in a contested US Congressional primary?

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Why isn't it easy for me to look up a beautiful 80,000 Hours article on how to build a campaign in a contested US Congressional primary?

FWIW, there are several US-based candidate training programs out there that aren't EA-specific but would give people the advice and skills they need to run a competitive campaign, while also developing helpful networks in the political sphere. For example, Run for Something is well positioned on the Democratic side and in the midst of a massive expansion this year. New Politics may be of interest to some as well, as they focus on candidates with a service background (e.g., military, Americorps) and work on both sides of the aisle.

So this comment is sort of based on politics/ideology in research, but basically 50% of good empirical papers (Nature, AER) don’t generalize, and when examined, narrow specific actionable claims usually dissolve or were never there in the first place.

In this case, it’s not surprisingly that models don’t apply for spending that is an order of magnitude greater, for sort of outlier candidates.

Wildly LARPing political comments here:

A consideration is that getting a principled EA elected seems really different than most models of political lobbying.

There is specific value in getting a trusted EA person into national office. This value requires EA talent that is capable, trustworthy. This seems rare.

So this “theory of change” or vision is different than what this post says. 

This is a rationalization of the spending in the recent campaign that hasn’t been emphasized in recent discussions (another reason is the “flow through effects” of the spending and involvement).

This comment is piling on and just stating what is visible in hindsight.

It is hard, but the resources or money spent could have been used in more sophisticated or impactful ways to interest voters, instead of ad spending:

Imagine if the candidate helped fund a (near-EA) program in the district. For example, supporting a new education center or local healthcare initiative with $250k or $1M in seed funding. The end result might be leaders from the community coming out in favor of the EA candidate.

This donation done well, would get “face time” with the community and show understanding of constituent needs. 

Maybe this could play to the strengths of EAs (understanding and focusing on impact in a well considered way) and help counter narratives of being an outsider focused on esoteric policy.

 

The following is a backhanded, unfair, insult to write in the immediate days after, but to be show one critique[1]: it reads like the associated account manager (the Google ads sales person whose bonus or promotion depends on volume) got carried away, or someone looked at conventional spending levers and “turned up the knob” to very high levels, out of band[2].

 

Maybe much more sophisticated spending requires great skill. To calibrate, maybe the ability to execute this is worth 7 figures by itself.

  1. ^

    Please don't ban me.

  2. ^

    Google (YouTube) and FB probably owe EAs a large amount of money for exploring the dynamics of saturation spending on user behavior.

"The following is a backhanded, unfair, insult to write in the immediate days after, but to be show one critique[1]: it reads like the associated account manager (the Google ads sales person whose bonus or promotion depends on volume) got carried away, or someone looked at conventional spending levers and “turned up the knob” to very high levels, out of band[2]."

 

That sounds about right to me about what happened -- I mean, I think it was definitely worth trying (with the only main downside being that the particular way SBF tried possibly crowded out other more effective ways of trying, but mistakes are how you learn), but yeah -- it is if nothing else well known that you can't use money to brute force election results.

I do think that approach of trying to get good local branding is a good idea, though OTOH, we also don't want it to turn into donating lots of money to comparatively low value local projects -- if for no other reason that that would dilute the brand.

The content of this comment seems reasonable to me. How is it "LARPing"?