As fictional casino magnate Terry Benedict, just robbed of around $150 million, stands in his freshly emptied subterranean vault, assessing the damage done by Danny Ocean’s merry band of thieves in Ocean’s Eleven, one of his associates on the walkie-talkie asks the most important question of the film:
“I don’t understand … what happened to all that money?”
In the aftermath of the 2012 elections, many deep-pocketed donors found themselves asking the same question.
With over $7 billion spent on both sides in the 2012 election cycle, including hundreds of millions spent just by super PACs opposing President Obama, the pressure is on for candidates and super PACs on the right to prove their worth.
As campaign budgets go, Republicans and Democrats don’t appear at first glance to be so different in how they divvy up the dough. “Ultimately, the spending habits of Democratic and Republican campaigns were fairly similar,” said the Center for Responsive Politics in breaking down how each side spends. Some variations are somewhat expected, such as the Democrats’ emphasis on new media and the Republican’s expenditures on campaign mailings. Yet one area of difference had a less obvious explanation: Republicans spend more on campaign consulting, while Democrats spend more on personnel.
Are Democrats just paying their staff the big bucks? Not quite. While campaign payrolls are hardly the biggest chunk of any political effort’s budget, the GOP paycheck advantage first raised eyebrows when the liberal New Organizing Institute (NOI) examined Federal Election Commission (FEC) records of campaign paychecks and found that seven of the Romney campaign’s senior staffers earned more than Team Obama’s top dog, Jim Messina. Even in the super PAC world, new FEC data examined by Roll Call finds that conservative groups compensate their top staff far more generously than those on the left.
It’s not just the top of the org chart. NOI also reported that the average Republican campaign staffer brought home $478 more per paycheck than the average Democratic staffer. While they admit their data set has its share of flaws (including over three dozen people paid $3.11 each by the Tennessee Democratic Party and a “staffer” named Godfrey Wise Berg [actually an accounting firm] who earned three quarters of a million dollars working for Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s re-election in Michigan), I took a look at just those who received four or more paychecks. Even among that subset, Republican staff still brought home $224 more per paycheck than the average Democratic counterpart across the aisle. Perhaps most striking are the differences in numbers: Democrats had over 8,800 paid staff who earned four or more paychecks, while Republicans had only 3,600.
Maybe it’s just that the labor pool on the right is chockablock with Alex P. Keaton types who might need a little more financial incentive to forego a payday in the private sector. Maybe, as some on the left have suggested, the right was just awash in cash, which drove up salaries. Either way, the right is definitely spending more per staffer, but the left is spending a lot more on staff altogether–a key difference. And the focus on building a massive army appears to have been the right one.
While Republicans may have scoffed at the 786 to 284 advantage held by the Obama team in terms of field offices , their tune had changed by the 2013 RNC “autopsy” report that declared, “There is a strong consensus that we have not invested the financial resources in a labor pool that can actively conduct and run ‘in-person’ contact at the ground level. The Obama campaign budgeted its spending to ensure the most personal forms of voter contact were a priority.”
Republicans know they’ll need a massive on-the-ground network to compete with the infrastructure built up by the other side. Next week, the Republican National Committee members will convene in DC to talk plans for the future, including just these sorts of things. Good.
Coverage of campaigns loves to focus on money, money, money. Who raised what? Who’s got the bigger war chest? Who did better last quarter? But as the last election proved, huge piles of cash do not necessarily lead to victory. The right could take a page or two from the left’s playbook about how to invest in human capital. Maybe it will make folks feel better about what’s happening to all that money.