Numberscruncher: Making Money on Elections

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

February 2 is Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and Election Day in Illinois. We have a lot of hot contests here in the state because our governor, who took office after Rod Blagojevich resigned, is not very popular and one of our senate seats, once held by Barack Obama and now by Roland Burris – appointed by Rod Blagojevich – will be open. Campaigns are big business, which I see every day when I pick up the mail or let the answering machine pick up.

When you have big contests, generating national interest (and funds), you end up with a lot of money being spent. You’ll want an office and some staff; maybe you can run the campaign out of your house and do most the work yourself, if you are running for a small-town school board, but the scale gets higher the bigger the office and the greater the number of voters you must reach. You’ll probably want posters, yard signs, and stickers. Everything will have to be done by union printers, and quite possibly, you’ll choose your vendors for their politics rather than the size of their bid. Volunteers can do a lot, but someone has to supervise them, and they are not always going to be reliable. And, they may not have the expertise for the hard work, like investigating the validity of signatures on your opponent’s petitions.

Oh, did I mention that all of these costs are incurred after you pay the filing fee and collect the petitions? Figure on getting twice as many as you need, because your opponent will probably challenge some of your names. Some states let you pay petition collectors, but other states do not. You might need to pay a lawyer to help make sure that you and your volunteers are complying with the election laws where you are running, too.

It’s easy to find out how much money is raised and from whomIt is harder to find out what that money is spent on. Spending is not disclosed in easy-to-use online databases; payments for advertising, consultants, and campaign videographers/girlfriends show up in paper filings that are easy to evaluate for one candidate but harder to compare for the thousands of congressional, senate, and Presidential primary and general election campaigns that may take place in one year. The Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan journalism think tank, had people comb through the printouts from the 2003-2004 Federal elections to find out where the money went. The resulting report includes searchable databases; 600 consultants received a total of $1.78 billion for their services, or about $2.9 million each. Obviously, that’s skewed by the presidential election that year. John Kerry’s campaign spent $163.1 million on consultants out of a $299.4 million budget. Dewey Hub, a robocaller, took in $2.7 million.

The costs of launching and operating a campaign scare off good new candidates. Successful candidates need charisma and fundraising skills more than they need ideas or governing skills, sadly. It helps if candidates are willing to spend personal funds, which puts a lot of rich people in the running who may be more interested in building resumes than in governing. It’s also why we have political organizations, whether they are known as machines or otherwise.

Some of this isn’t even effective, and it may be counterproductive. Did I think warm and fuzzy thoughts about Sebastian Patti and Linda Pauelafter getting their robocall? No. I know nothing about either candidate other than hat their joint call was the most recent one that I received, causing me to dig out my list of judicial ratings put out by the Chicago Bar Association and cross off their names. Research by Alan Gerber and Donald Green of Yale University published in the September 2005 issue of The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science (surely one of your favorites, no) indicates that campaign phone calls are, at best, ineffective. And yet, campaigns spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on them; the low total price of the phone campaign hides the high price per incremental vote. I doubt many new voters were drawn to Kerry by that $2.7 million in phone calls.

The spending and annoyance will ratchet up between now and the 2012 elections, especially now that the Supreme Court has lifted restrictions on corporate donations to political campaigns. Think of it as a stimulus package creating jobs and revenues for small businesses, and it won’t seem so horrible. At least not as long as you have caller ID.

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