The mismatch between two numbers — the amount of money Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas who is running against Ted Cruz, has raised, and the amount of support he is getting in recent polls — is generating some lively commentary.
The editor of the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti, commenting on O'Rourke's haul of $38.1 million in the past three months, observed, "The media may have made a strategic mistake in creating the Beto phenomenon, drawing away tens of millions of dollars from more competitive races."
Nate Silver, the election forecaster, acknowledged that O'Rourke's numbers have been slipping: "he's gone from a deficit of 3-4 points at his peak to 5-6 now. That's not great; TX has gone from 'Lean R' to 'Likely R'." Silver writes that the race is "not to the point where Dems should be donating 60 zillion $$ to his campaign."
It might be interesting to think about this somewhat outside the model of "spend $60 million, buy your political party a Senate seat." What else is being purchased here other than a win? And how might that explain what otherwise seems like a long shot or a waste of money? After all $60 million could buy a lot of other things instead — Birthright Israel-style educational trips for high school and college students to Ellis Island, college scholarships for "dreamers," you name it.
One thing the $60 million is buying is a sense, for the donors, that they at least did something to try to defeat Senator Cruz, a person they despise. Doing something can feel better than doing nothing, even if that something is unsuccessful: "At least I gave it my best shot."
Another thing the $60 million is buying is a lot of ads on Google, Facebook, and on local and cable television ($15 million in TV spending for O'Rourke alone, according to the Dallas Morning News). Who owns the TV stations making money on this stuff? Univision, Sinclair, Fox, Graham, NBC Universal: a list is here. O'Rourke's consultants, Revolution Messaging, who did Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, are also reportedly earning substantial fees. Social media and regular media both benefit from the ad spending that is bought by an expensive race, fostered by the perception that it is a close, winnable race. I'm not saying this dictates the press coverage. But it would be an interesting thing to test how the press responded to a campaign that said we aren't going to spend a lot of money on television advertising. Oh wait — there was such a presidential campaign, in 2016, by Donald Trump, and the press hated it.
From a career-advancement perspective, no one is going to punish a reporter who wasted readers' time with the idea that Beto O'Rourke might win in Texas. Instead people are going to remember, oh yeah, she's the one who wrote that lovely profile of Beto O'Rourke. Even the fundraisers will find a way to put a positive spin on it — hey, if we even managed to raise $60 million for a Democrat running for Senate in Texas, imagine how well we can do for you in your campaign that actually might be genuinely winnable.
All of which is to say, there are a lot of incentives all around working in favor of "this race is close, pay attention, give money," and not a lot of incentives in favor of "this race is hopeless, ignore it," regardless of the underlying reality.