Incumbent Protection - the Dirty Little Secret of a Soft Money Ban

By Jim Babka

Dick Morris' column in The Hill (a weekly newspaper for Capitol Hill), "You Don't Need Soft Money" on March 21, 2001, could just as easily have been titled, "You Don't WANT Soft Money." It was an open letter to Senators from one of the best political strategists of the modern era. It also revealed the keys to the kingdom of incumbency.

It makes sense to think that the man who wrote the book, The New Prince, was, once again, engaged in some Machiavellian scheme much like his signature strategy "triangulation." By writing an open letter to incumbents, he was exposing the advantage McCain-Feingold would confer on incumbents -- a bill the American people would likely oppose, if they understood its' consequences.

It's even more likely Morris didn't intend for challengers, or real American's outside the beltway, to understand, let alone read, what he was writing. After all, his correspondence was to the same incumbents who were voting on the McCain-Feingold bill.

Morris writes, "You don't need soft money to compete." According to Morris, 5,000 to 7,000 rating points (the measure of how many people see a TV ad) is enough to win a race for reelection, which means most voters will see an incumbents ad 50 to 70 times. "If that isn't enough to convince them of your merits, another 100 exposures won't do the trick," he says.

Remember this was a letter to the ultimate insiders, incumbent Senators. Here's what this means in English.

  • One rating point equals 1% of households in a media market are watching your ad.

  • Former House Speaker Tom Foley is the best example of the "another 100 exposures" phenomenon Morris speaks of. In 1994, in the midst of a Republican surge, Foley's back was against the wall. Polls showed his opponent George Nethercutt just might beat him. It didn't seem possible, especially since Foley had a nearly bottomless war chest.

    That was until Foley spent it, and spent it, and spent still more of it. Each surge of spending on radio and television ads actually reduced his poll numbers! Drowning and unsure what to do, he spent even more -- and lost. There's a political science rule of thumb about incumbency -- the more the incumbent spends, the more likely he is too lose.

The goal of any challenger is to force the incumbent to spend his money. This requires the challenger to spend his money -- if he has it. Usually he doesn't.

According to a report written by Eric O'Keefe and Aaron Steelman for the CATO Institute (, it's an uphill battle to raise funds. Political action committees (PAC's) hedge their hard money contributions, using their funds to buy an audience with the incumbent after the election. They frequently use that access to get favorable bills passed and to minimize the damage of, or protect themselves from, bad legislation. Giving to likely losers is a waste of their funds.

O'Keefe and Steelman outline other advantages incumbents possess including, automatic name recognition, constituent service offices, pork-barrel programs, the franking privilege (free mail to everyone in their district), and much greater media coverage. For the challenger, money is far more crucial to their success. "As an incumbent, if both you and your opponent have very little money, you will win because he will never be able to get his name or his message out," advises Morris.

Soft money and independent expenditures by outside groups were the last great equalizers. Again, in plain English, soft money was not subject to limitation regulations, until the passage of McCain-Feingold. It was money contributed to political parties used for party building and operations. Only a small portion of it can be spent on coordinated advertising campaigns. And, through this fall's elections, challengers will jockey for position so that they can get it spent on their race. Morris underscored the danger to incumbent Senators when he wrote, "soft money . . . destabilizes your race. When your opposing party (makes) . . . the decision to fund your opponent . . . a race that never would never become competitive if only hard money were involved, suddenly becomes hot and unstable."

Even Federal Elections Commission member Bradley Smith calls campaign finance regulation an "incumbent protection racket." Some Senators supporting McCain-Feingold agree. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas likened the issue to the "Star Wars" missile defense system in the March 14, 2001 edition of the Wall Street Journal, when he was quoted saying, "Hey, I'm suffering an independent expenditure missile attack and I don't have my shield."

McCain-Feingold gives the incumbent Senator from Kansas his shield. It will further entrench incumbents. Do we really want all of our Senators and Congressmen to have greater job security? Do we really want these incumbents to be even less accountable to us then they are now?

Jim Babka is the President of American Liberty Foundation and, Inc., both in Alexandria, VA. Before that, he was the press secretary for Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate for President in 2000.