The Costs of Campaigning
Opinion -- How much does it cost run for political office?
The June 20, 2017 special election in Georgia’s sixth congressional district broke the all-time record for money spent trying to win a single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to an independent analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, the combined amount of all spending reached $59.6 million. The eventual loser, Democrat Jon Ossoff, raised $30.2 million and spent $28.4 million while the victor, Republican Karen Handel, raised about $6.6 million and spent $6 million. In a normal election cycle, the analysis would begin there, but Georgia’s sixth was not normal. In the runoff, Ossoff was supported by about $9 million in outside spending while Handel received about $12 million in outside help, most of which came from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and The Congressional Leadership PAC, a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Handel’s win was not surprising - I prefigured it in a column after the first round of voting - but media hype and the hopes of the anti-Trump “resistance” rested on Ossoff outperforming Hillary Clinton and the Democrats’ 2016 nominee. He did not. In 2016, the Democratic nominee, Rodney Stooksbury, finished with 124,917 votes. Ossoff’s final haul in 2017? 124,893 votes. Ossoff spent $227.39 per vote. Handel, and her more helpful allies, spent $133.73 per vote. The FEC does not even have a filing for Stooksbury to make a comparison. A caveat here, Ossoff and Handel were competing in a special election to fill the seat of Rep. Tom Price, the Republican candidate in 2016. It is not advisable to compare turnout and final vote tallies between the two elections. Nevertheless, media figures and political pundits insisted that Donald Trump’s one percent victory in the district in 2016 meant that Georgia’s sixth was fertile ground for a Democratic insurgency. That insurgency cost Democrats $37.4 million and they have absolutely nothing to show for it.
Campaigning is budgeting, plain and simple. The revenue required to run a campaign either comes from individual contributions or, such as the case with Donald Trump, from the candidate. Campaigns cost money. The average cost per vote in American elections has been between seven and ten dollars. While Georgia’s sixth shattered the record, I did not have to travel very far from my hometown in California to find another outlier case of budgetary, and therefore campaign, impropriety.
Why did Darrell Issa spend six million dollars in 2016? Issa, the Representative of California’s 49th Congressional District near my hometown of Temecula, is considered the most independently wealthy member of Congress. In 2016, he found himself in an unusually tight race against first time candidate Doug Applegate. Issa brought in his long-time political consultant, Dave Gilliard, to assist the campaign. Together, Issa spent nearly four million dollars on television advertising alone, and another two million on placards that come in the mail. With 134,428 votes, Issa spent $37.49 per vote and barely managed to eke out the tiniest margin of victory in his career.
Gilliard is the go-to consultant for most Republican campaigns in California. Every Californian is familiar with the nearly identical format employed on all mailers designed by his consulting firm, Gilliard, Blanning & Associates. Reps. Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher, and my Representative, Duncan Hunter, are facing some Democratic challengers receiving favorable coverage from local and national media outlets. According the most recent FEC filings, they are all paying Gilliard’s firm for fundraising, digital media, web service, and/or direct mail advice. They should be mindful of how much it cost their colleague, Rep. Issa, to keep his seat. Voters, volunteers, and donors should also be aware that media purchases like the ones Issa’s campaign made in 2016 have proven more expensive and less effective as more voters turn to alternative sources of entertainment and news.
The lesson here is that campaigning is not cheap. If every congressional race attracts more between 100,000 to 300,000 voters, the average cost of a campaign is going to exceed one million dollars. Fundraising is essential, but campaigns often treat donors like nothing more than emergency piggy banks to guilt into filling their coffers before critical deadlines. At all levels, there are well-meaning operatives offering to consult campaigns, for a fee, and there is no way to tell if the advice being offered is any good. There are also consultants that will line their pockets while watching a campaign collapse under unsustainable costs.
A good campaign strategy is not just one that stresses winning at all costs. The acquisition of data, fundraising, and email addresses is a given, but campaigns must ask how to best use that information to motivate existing supporters and persuade others to join the cause. Call it the synthesize, analyze, mobilize, and personalize approach. Synthesize the reams of data collected through fundraising, website sign-ups, social media responses, and field surveys. Analyze the data to determine who is likely to stay engaged in the campaign and under what circumstances. Mobilize existing supporters to become volunteers, host a fundraising event, or become a social media ally for sharing the campaign’s messages. Finally, personalize the approach to each voter in order to persuade them that the candidate is meeting them where they are, and ready to take them where they ought to be. Not every voter is a potential supporter and it behooves campaigns to focus on likely supporters rather than blitzing the airwaves hoping the message will somehow get across. If a message cannot personalize the issues for voters, they might still come your way, but they will not come cheap.
You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU
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