Analysis: Money counts in Texas elections, but timing matters, too

click to enlarge Analysis: Money counts in Texas elections, but timing matters, too
Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore (left) and Courtesy Photo / MJ Hegar Campaign (right)
Late money is pouring into MJ Hegar’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, and the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported this week that the Democrat has jumped ahead of Republican incumbent John Cornyn in money raised, money on hand and — this is the important bit — advertising presence.

Hegar remains behind in the polls, even as that contest and others appear to be tightening, as they will, as Election Day approaches. And there is a number buried in those polls of particular interest: A lot of Texans haven’t formed an opinion of her, either positive or negative.

That’s the kind of information political campaigns are built on. For a candidate, it’s a sign that introductions are in order, that voters need to know more before they’ll sign up and lend their support and their votes.

For the opposition, it’s the possibility that voters might be susceptible to negative information — a chance to introduce an opponent in a negative way, in the hope that a bad first impression will tilt the race your way.

Money is how you do those things, especially in the expansive mediaverse of Texas — a state notorious for the expense of running effective advertising campaigns.

There’s a reason the presidential commercials have been relatively restrained here: It’s less expensive to reach voters in smaller states, and more efficient to contend for Electoral College votes in those places.

Hegar started the general election campaign with some serious disadvantages. First, the pandemic extended the primary runoffs, and Hegar’s Democratic runoff required time and money she’d rather have spent getting ready for November.

The signs of that late start showed in the mid-year campaign finance reports. Hegar got to that point with $900,000 in the bank, while Cornyn — who was finished with his primary in March — had $14.5 million.

That put him on the airwaves earlier than Hegar.

The Democrat caught up during the third quarter, outraising Cornyn $14 million to $7.2 million, and reaching October with money to advertise and campaign for the rest of the race. And she’s getting outside help from Democratic groups looking to knock off one of the Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate.

Better late than never.

But wouldn’t it have been great to introduce yourself before so many of the state’s registered voters had started casting their ballots?

With what appears to be a financial advantage in the final days, Hegar might well gain some ground on Cornyn.

But it’s not like most of us are waiting until Election Day to vote. In fact, many of the votes have already been cast.

It would be fun to know — though it would also be impossible to find out — how the voting went on each day from the start of early voting through Election Day. It would be one way of telling whether and how the information that dropped between those dates changed voters’ minds. Did the ads work? Did debates, gaffes, promises, news or whatever change public opinion?

A lot has happened already this month. Maybe voters’ opinions in the presidential race weren’t in flux — it seems like almost everybody decided a long time ago whether they want to stay the course or change direction. But in other races on the ballot, from Cornyn/Hegar all the way down to local school board trustees, late information has been known to sway voters.

That’s why they advertise, to say nice things about their own campaigns and not-so-nice things about the opposition. There’s more competition for voter attention as we get closer to Nov. 3.

Early money is coveted by campaigns because it lets them start their campaigns earlier, before the noise level is so high. They can establish their candidate’s public image before the other side gets a chance to do it. It doesn’t always work, but it’s hard to argue that a later start is just as good.

The U.S. Senate race in Texas is a test of sorts. Hegar hasn’t run a statewide campaign before. Cornyn has run six, starting in 1990: three for U.S. Senate (not including the current race), one for Texas attorney general and two for the Texas Supreme Court. Many of the state’s voters weren’t yet born when he first appeared on a statewide ballot.

He’s better known. He started with more money. She has more money now. He had more ads on TV; now, she does. That’s not all there is to this race — there’s plenty of racket in the contest at the top of the ballot that could affect the Senate outcome — but it has the makings of a political case study.

Cornyn got the jump, financially speaking. Hegar took the finish. What worked better?

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