Money: A Price of Democracy

By Frank Blechman

If you have email, and if you have been involved in any way in electoral politics, you now receive many emails every day (I get 30-50/day, on average) saying something like:

“The sky is falling.”

“Can you believe what my opponent just did?

“Send $23 in the next ten minutes for a 500% match.”

“We need just 10 more donations from your area to make our weekly fundraising goal.”

It’s silly, and we would ignore it all except that we understand that elections do have serious consequences. We think, “Gosh, what if the sky is falling? That would be bad.”

Last week, I wrote about why we should not take polling in July and August too seriously. This column will address the role of money in politics, which we should take seriously, but not too seriously. This is not a rant about how “big money” is destroying democracy, or about how some money is better or worse than others. This is simply a review of why money is needed to support political efforts. As with last week’s column, if you know this stuff, you can skip this.

First, to compete in elective politics above the level of PTA Chair, any candidate has to have enough money to hire a capable staff, provide support for volunteers, and communicate with voters. In our diverse society of Northern Virginia, communication is hard and expensive. Social media and e-communication (email, text messaging, robocalls) are cheaper per contact than snail mail or broadcast messaging, but are also easily erased and ignored. How many political or commercial emails do you read all the way through? Further, voters here speak more than a hundred languages at home. You can produce a video on your phone, but can you make it culturally appropriate for even the top five non-European (Korean, Central American, Vietnamese, Sub-Continental, East African) ethnic groups?

The amount of money needed to staff and communicate is somewhat directly proportional to the size of the office being sought. In Virginia,

  • A state House of Delegates district comprises about 85,000 people, 52,000 voters (32,000 households).
  • A Fairfax magisterial district has 135,000 people, 75,000 voters (50,000 households).
  • A state Senate district is made up of about 215,000 people, 130,000 voters (90,000 households).
  • A congressional district is 775,000 people, 565,000 voters (400,000 households).
  • A statewide office represents 8.5 million people and 6.2 million voters (5 million households).

Personal contact with everyone is certainly every candidate’s goal, but it is physically impossible. Even the most dedicated public servant cannot visit every voter, even once in two years. In fact, a Delegate district represents the outer limit that a person can visit every neighborhood once in two years.

So, let’s imagine that you are a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates (you can do the math to translate this to apply to the other offices using the numbers above) running for the first time against an established incumbent. You may have a primary battle as well as a general election. A minimal paid campaign staff will cost you at least $50,000.

And then, you have to decide how to communicate your message. What can you do? Billboards are no longer legal in Northern Virginia and broadcast TV spots are prohibitively costly (a minimum cable TV buy would be $25,000/week, and broadcast TV easily is $100,000/week) and inefficient (Washington, DC, TV stations reach millions of households, 95%+ of them not in your district) here. In theory you could get some free coverage in the media. For some reason, however, major media outlets such as the Washington Post and local TV news give very little time to these races.

OK, what about using printed materials?

To print just one two-sided color 8″ x 11” postcard (by a union printer, of course) for 20,000 households would cost $2,000 or more.

To get volunteers to deliver all of those cards at no cost, you would still have to get the materials out, provide maps and directions, perhaps provide water and snacks for hundreds of teams. That’s another $2,500.

If you decide to mail that postcard to those same households, the postage, addressing, and handling alone would cost another $7,000.

In other words, to communicate just once with each potential voter household would cost $5,000 to $10,000.

To be economical, you may decide to communicate only with those most likely to vote for you. Perhaps you can cut the number of households to 10,000. You could cut the cost per message in half. Even then, delivering 20 printed messages over the life of the campaign would cost $100,000.

Of course, you will also want to reserve some funds to respond to unexpected events or attacks. Add $10,000.

Other campaign paraphernalia (yard signs, grip cards, stickers, banners, pins, balloons, consultants, researchers, food, an office perhaps, staff housing) easily will cost $15,000.

Additional paid field staff, polling, fundraising, paid media, media relations, social media, events, administration and reporting can easily add tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

A bare-bones, minimally credible campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates . . . costs nearly $200,000.

Bingo! A bare-bones, minimally credible campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates (the smallest office where I live) costs nearly $200,000. In 2019, my delegate spent over $2 million dollars to unseat an incumbent (who also spent $2 million). The average Delegate race, (including unopposed candidates), cost over $300,000 in 2019. Winners and losers combined for the Virginia House of Delegates spent $68 million that year to win part-time jobs that pays less than $18,000 (plus per-diem) a year.

If you really want to drill down into this, the Virginia Public Access Project has many excellent graphics showing how election spending has changed (https://www.vpap.org/visuals/visual/trends-campaign-spending-2019/) and where money comes from (https://www.vpap.org/visuals/visual/candidate-funding-sources-2018-19/.)

Money can’t ensure a win, but lack of money can reduce the changes of winning to near zero. You don’t need to have the most money, but you must have enough money.

No wonder that most serious candidates have professional fundraisers and devote significant time during campaigns “dialing for dollars.” If you don’t have the money to staff your campaign and communicate with voters (at least 80% of a campaign budget should be spent, one way or another, on direct voter contact), you cannot compete. Money can’t ensure a win, but lack of money can reduce the chances of winning to near zero. You don’t need to have the most money, but you must have enough money.

If all this offends you, consider the alternatives. We could have campaigns with strongly limited budgets in which candidates are able to address only one or two issues. We could have the opposite, campaigns in which candidates have unlimited resources, endless messaging, and no requirement to report or disclose influencers, in which the torrent of messaging makes it impossible for most voters to absorb, much less evaluate, most of it. We could have campaigns in which all communication comes from parties who totally control the nominations and messaging.

If you want individual candidates to communicate with you and display some accountability to you, you may have to put up with the noise. Delete the worst of the messages. Toss the most annoying mail. Refuse to answer the robocalls.

Campaign fundraising is obscene and corrupting, but it is the price of democracy.

But, have some sympathy for new or struggling candidates who are called to public service then drowned in fundraising. When they reach out to you, express thanks and compassion. Consider providing some modest support. In contrast, when unopposed incumbent candidates sitting on huge war chests ask for your support, say you won’t be giving until they start sharing their wealth with others. Be tough. Be smart. Be generous.

Campaign fundraising is obscene and corrupting, but it is the price of democracy.

 

 

 



Categories: elections, Issues, Local, National, politics

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