Monday, July 09, 2018

Why Is Montgomery County Immune to Money in Politics?

The Democratic primary for the Montgomery County (MD) Executive race was a nail-biter this year, pitting progressive County Councilor Marc Elrich against business and political outsider David Blair. But -- pending a potential recount -- it looks like Elrich won the race by less than 100 votes.

Elrich was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and other left-leaning groups, and they're claiming another victory. Blair, for his part, dumped almost three million dollars of his own money into the race only to come up short (Elrich chose to use public financing).

It's striking to see someone with that much of a financial edge lose a race like this. And it's not the first time Montgomery County Democrats have passed on well-financed candidates.

In 2016, businessman David Trone spent a record-setting $13.2 million dollars of his own money in the Democratic primary for the 8th congressional district, which largely encompasses Montgomery County, only to lose to American University Law Professor Jamie Raskin.  Raskin ran as the most progressive candidate in his 2016 primary race, and he's lived up to that label by becoming (according to Progressive Punch) the single-most liberal member of the entire House delegation.
(Trone, for his part, trotted northwest to the open 6th congressional district, where he just secured the Democratic nomination for 2018).

And that 8th district seat? It was open because its former occupant, Chris Van Hollen, made the jump to the U.S. Senate. And Van Hollen, for his part, won his initial 2002 Democratic primary over Mark Shriver (of the Kennedy Shrivers) despite being outraised 2:1.

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, with a median household income of over $100,000. The consistent success of progressive Democrats beating back better-funded but more centrist foes makes for an interesting contrast to the claim that affluent suburbs will serve as a drag on moving the Democratic Party to the left.

Maybe this is just a series of anecdotes. But it sure seems that Montgomery County seems uniquely resistant to being swamped by big dollar candidates. Assuming that's right, what gives MoCo this rare immunity?

This is outside my area of political science. But here are some possibilities worth exploring:

  • Diversity: Montgomery County is far more racially diverse than it is often given credit for. It is now a majority-minority county, though non-Hispanic Whites remain a plurality (44% non-Hispanic White, 20% Black, 20% Latino, and 16% Asian). That alone often correlates to a leftier-lean, and potentially more suspicion of big spenders in politics.
  • Education: Montgomery County ranks seventh in the country in terms of residents with college degrees; third in the country for graduate degrees. It's possible that more educated voters are less effected by the boons one can buy with big money.
  • Political proximity: Montgomery County comprises the northwest suburbs of DC, meaning that it has a lot of government workers and thus a potentially unique level of political literacy. That could translate to greater levels of political engagement, counteracting availability effects that emerge from carpet-bombing advertising strategies.

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