Monthly Party Fundraising Reports Don’t Tell the Whole Story

by Stuart Rothenberg March 13, 2013 · 9:23 AM EDT

Every election cycle the party campaign committees, and many in the national media, make a big deal about party fundraising.

Coverage of the money chase has been exacerbated by the fact that these committees file monthly reports detailing their fundraising, as opposed to quarterly. To wit:

There is nothing wrong with these pieces. But the party committee numbers, while noteworthy, simply aren’t as important as they once were.

The Campaign Finance Institute, a highly regarded think tank that monitors campaign spending, looked at party and non-party independent spending on congressional races during each of the past two election cycles, and the trend is clear.

In 2010, non-party spending on independent expenditures and electioneering communications totaled $280.2 million, while independent spending by the parties was only $181.6 million. Two years later, during the 2012 elections, independent spending by the parties inched up to $209.7 million — an increase of about $28 million — but independent spending on congressional races by non-party groups shot up to $463.9 million.

The difference between party and non-party spending in 2012 was particularly noticeable in Senate races. Party independent spending in Senate races last cycle hit $83.8 million, according to the CFI, while non-party spending was $265.5 million.

Fundraising by the campaign committees and by candidates obviously continues to be important. If candidates don’t raise money, the committees won’t look at their races and outside groups will take a pass.

But, at the same time, focusing too much on the campaign committees’ fundraising can be a mistake. After all, the goal of a committee isn’t — and shouldn’t be — to outraise its opposing committee. It is to elect more of its party’s nominees.