Voters divided ahead of Pennsylvania election

Voters prepare to head to the polls in a special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional district. CNN's Alex Marquardt reports.

Posted: Mar 14, 2018 5:32 AM
Updated: Mar 14, 2018 5:34 AM

For years, political pundits have worried about how big money could drown out voters' voices. Now, big money is so plentiful that it drowns out the voices of candidates, too.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Pennsylvania's 18th District, where Republican Rick Saccone will take on Democrat Conor Lamb in Tuesday's special election to replace former incumbent Tim Murphy.

The highly gerrymandered 18th District, an "r" shape with tentacles that wrap around most of the city of Pittsburgh, is the latest battleground that pits millions of dollars from outside the district in an election that has little to do with the candidates and even less to do with the concerns of voters. Rather, the district has become a magnet for major donors who see special elections as a harbinger for what is to come in the midterm congressional election.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Saccone has spent about $614,000, while Lamb has spent about $3.06 million. OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign contributions, notes that virtually none of this money has been raised inside the district.

But all this money is dwarfed by the more than $12.5 million funneled into the district from sources not connected to either candidate. And while Lamb has outpaced Saccone in individual fundraising efforts, pro-Saccone forces have poured in far more money than pro-Lamb forces.

Outside conservative organizations have given over $8 million to pay for anti-Lamb coverage, including negative ads attempting to tie him to Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is so unpopular in the district that Lamb has pledged to vote against her for House Speaker should the Democrats win the majority in November. And outside liberal organizations have given over $1.5 million to anti-Saccone coverage, including ads painting Saccone as extravagant with taxpayer funds. One ad even hurls the phrase "Harrisburg politician" as an epithet.

The district has also attracted the attention of big names on both sides of the aisle. Pennsylvania-born former Vice President Joe Biden was in the district stumping for Lamb last week. President Donald Trump made his third visit to the district -- two of those visits during his own election campaign -- on Saturday, when he told the crowd, "Personally, I like Rick Saccone. I think he's handsome," and calling Saccone's opponent "Lamb the sham."

Our Constitution dictates that private citizens have a First Amendment right to say what they want about candidates, and the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, made clear that organizations (for profit and nonprofit) can spend as extravagantly as they choose to get that message out. But for those who want to exercise their First Amendment rights most effectively, they should use their money to drag down the candidate they don't like.

Why? The answer is negative partisanship, a phenomenon whereby Americans' dislike of their least preferred party, not esteem for their most preferred party, motivates them to go to the polls. A recent article by Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven Webster in the political science journal Electoral Studies shows that since 2008, negative feelings about the opposing party provide a better explanation for party loyalty than do positive feelings about one's own party.

And according to a recent Emerson College poll, about 56% of voters in the 18th District are "very excited" to vote in Tuesday's election. But this can't be attributed to excitement about the candidates or politicians. Despite having won the district by 20 points in 2016, Trump has an approval rating in the district of about 48%, reports the same poll. And neither Lamb nor Saccone break more than 50% approval either.

So even though both are highly qualified candidates, selected by their party leaders to appear on the ballot, it appears unlikely voters will be showing up in support of their respective candidates.

But remember, this isn't an election about the candidates. It is about the money. Our campaign finance laws dictate that candidates have legal limits on how much money they can accept: only $5,000 per political action committee per year. In contrast, outside organizations can spend an unlimited amount if they do not coordinate with the candidates themselves. These outside forces can buy their own ads, focusing on what's wrong with the other guy in an effort to get voters to turn out in support of their guy.

As is clear from the 18th District race, candidates can stick to the issues all they want, but the airwaves will remain filled with negative ads from outside sources. Candidates may have big ideas, but, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, it is the elections that have gotten small.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

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Confirmed Cases: 113337

Reported Deaths: 3530
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion20936761
Lake10334319
Elkhart6438109
St. Joseph6226103
Allen6060200
Hamilton4761109
Vanderburgh349430
Hendricks2681122
Monroe251236
Tippecanoe231213
Johnson2279123
Clark215756
Porter209046
Cass19339
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Vigo178524
Madison161075
LaPorte138239
Floyd132161
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Warrick122336
Kosciusko120617
Bartholomew115357
Marshall99424
Dubois95918
Boone95646
Hancock91443
Grant89733
Noble89432
Henry78125
Wayne74714
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Shelby66629
Daviess65428
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Clinton59513
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Montgomery50521
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Decatur45739
Miami4303
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Fayette41813
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Scott35910
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Jennings31212
Posey3090
Franklin30325
Clay2985
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Ripley2828
Carroll27113
Wabash2628
Washington2611
Whitley2556
Starke2537
Adams2523
Wells2503
Jefferson2443
Fulton2352
Huntington2223
Spencer2223
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Randolph2097
Jay1750
Newton17211
Owen1671
Martin1640
Rush1534
Pike1411
Vermillion1260
Fountain1202
Pulaski1151
Blackford1133
Brown1033
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Parke961
Benton880
Ohio777
Union770
Switzerland690
Warren391
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

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Confirmed Cases: 146753

Reported Deaths: 4687
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin26393606
Cuyahoga17262654
Hamilton12913312
Montgomery7623157
Lucas7205361
Butler5771106
Summit5202250
Marion307547
Mahoning3014280
Warren297848
Stark2790170
Pickaway264144
Lorain229386
Delaware218820
Fairfield205852
Columbiana192380
Licking188362
Trumbull1861131
Clark176439
Wood175272
Clermont166521
Lake159650
Medina144239
Greene139732
Miami139451
Allen139369
Portage111066
Mercer108517
Erie92645
Tuscarawas92020
Wayne91367
Ross86523
Richland81519
Madison79212
Darke78041
Belmont71427
Geauga70948
Hancock67610
Ashtabula65348
Athens6362
Lawrence62722
Shelby59710
Auglaize5769
Putnam56823
Sandusky55820
Huron5387
Union5092
Scioto4826
Ottawa46630
Seneca46414
Preble42515
Muskingum3862
Holmes3787
Jefferson3334
Henry30713
Logan3053
Champaign3003
Perry2929
Defiance28610
Clinton28413
Brown2832
Knox28215
Morrow2552
Washington25523
Hardin25213
Jackson2414
Fulton2391
Coshocton23211
Ashland2314
Crawford2286
Fayette2276
Highland2223
Williams2053
Wyandot20512
Gallia18812
Meigs17410
Pike1740
Hocking1619
Guernsey1608
Carroll1517
Adams1264
Van Wert1143
Monroe11018
Paulding1060
Harrison622
Morgan470
Vinton453
Noble270
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