game theory and the super PACs

Imagine that you lead a conservative super-PAC like American Crossroads, Restore Our Future, the Koch network, or the US Chamber of Commerce, which collectively planned to spend a $1 billion on this fall’s election. Of course, you must accommodate a bunch of separate and strong-willed donors, but I think these are the goals you will balance:

  1. Support the person you most want to see win, which is probably Mitt Romney, because you most want to see Barack Obama lose.
  2. Make the greatest marginal difference in the election by supporting candidates who are in a position to benefit from your dollars.
  3. Support candidates who will maximize your members’ after-tax profits. Whom to choose is debatable–it could even be the Democrats, if you believe they have a better macroeconomic policy–but leaders of conservative super-PACs presumably believe the answer is fiscally conservative Republicans.
  4. Support candidates who are likely to win, because if they win without your money, you have no pull with them. There’s a debate about how much access and influence money buys, but you have something else to worry about besides influence. If Democrats win despite your spending $1 billion for Republicans, you will send a clear message that you are weak and the Democrats can build a coalition without you.

Now, consider that the odds of Barack Obama’s winning in November are 90% according to Sam Wang, 77.6% according to Nate Silver, and 71.7% according to Intrade. Consider also that both the House and Senate are in play, with numerous unpredictable races.

No wonder Karl Rove is spending his money on behalf of Senate Republicans. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that conservative super-PACS were spending $10 million/week on behalf of Mitt Romney until a few weeks ago, but they are down to just $2.07 million in the last week.  CRP also calculates that Restore Our Future has spent $84 million on congressional races, American crossroads has spent $34 million, and Americans for prosperity has spent $31 million.  Meanwhile, an industry like financial services (including real estate and insurance) demonstrates how to distribute your cash if you are mainly concerned about your own after-tax profits plus mollifying the winner. They’ve given $221 million to Republicans, of which only $29 million had gone to Romney. They have also given $116 million to Democrats, including an ingratiating $12 million to Obama.

Conversely, if you are a liberal Democrat, I think your favorite outcomes, in descending order of priority, are: 1) win Congress, 2) win the presidency with no help from corporate donors, and 3) win the presidency with some corporate support.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.