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10 July 2014 @ 09:13 pm
What I Learned From Reporting on Campaign Finances  
So I’m going to do something a bit different today: I am going to respond to one of my own pieces. Longtime readers may remember my “reading response responses” from freshman year of college, which is probably the closest to what I am doing. I’ve never really explicitly mentioned my work since becoming a professional, instead focusing on national issues or personal essays while I cover local politics at work. But today my editor brought up a piece I did on campaign finance and said he thought my analysis was good and that the numbers fairly accurately predicted the actual primary election results. Naturally, journalist that I am, I decided to revisit that piece and test the claim. Since the election’s been over for weeks, I didn’t think it would be timely enough to publish, but still interesting enough that people might read it. Which brought me here.

So, we covered 11 races (counting the gubernatorial one) this cycle. Not all of them were contested, though, (or some were technically contested but there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt who’d actually win) so my article focused on five: three House of Delegates and two County Council. I looked at three financial measures to try to determine the outcome: overall account balance, last quarter spending and last quarter fundraising. As predictors of the outcome, all of these figures were hit and miss.

Most straightforward was the Republican primary for House of Delegates District 6. The top three vote-getters were the three candidates who did the best with both fundraising and expenditures (and in the same order, too.) The overall balance figure was skewed because the guy with the most money was self-funding his campaign and not asking for donations. Thus, he had minimal receipts. He also was reluctant to spend much, which at the time I attributed to confidence but may have been because people are more stingy (or frugal, however you see it) with their personal fortune than with money crowdsourced from others.

Turning briefly to county council, both of these races would have been predicted by overall account balance. The eventual Democratic winner in District 7 had the highest account balance, as did the incumbent in D6. Spending wasn’t at all an indicator for either race; D6 challenger outspent the incumbent by $60,000 [although, the incumbent concentrated her mailings in the last fortnight of the campaign, after the reports were filed, so this number may have evened out by election day.] For D7, the man who spent the most money came in last place, while the winner was right in the middle in terms of spending.

That leaves our two contested Democratic primaries in House of Delegates, District 6 and 8. These races were fascinating from a political standpoint, as both had open seats and well-established incumbents vying against well-respected community members who were political newcomers. And the actual results of both races really surprised everyone, me included. First, D8. Three candidates joined a ticket with the immensely popular state senator, and that association was enough to pull all of them to victory. The incumbent delegate won handily; his incumbency made up for his second-place fundraising total and expenditures. The second-place vote getter came out of nowhere; she only spent just over $1,000 as of the reporting (although, she too may have back-loaded her expenditures) and didn’t raise too much either. But the community knew her name even if I didn’t, and she secured the nomination. The guy in third spent the most money during the cycle, so I was anticipating a second-place finish for him.

The other factor messing my predictions up was a fourth candidate not on the ticket who nevertheless ran an amazing campaign. He raised the most money during the cycle and was third in expenditures (and also spent the most time sign-waving and door-knocking, but I digress.) I fully expected him to take the third slot as a result, but that never happened.

The District 6 delegates race was just as exciting, and it turns out, unpredictable. The reporters covering it from my paper and our competitor had the hardest time making any sort of prediction at all due to a variety of factors: unpopular decisions by the incumbent who, though retiring, endorsed people; two competing tickets; a record nine candidates; redistricting and more. Turns out, the numbers wouldn’t have helped much either. The remaining incumbent (out of three possible) cruised to victory in spite of mediocre spending and fundraising. The race’s top spender ended up in second place by a wide margin (he wasn’t affiliated with either ticket, by the way, and I personally thought his campaign was lackluster. But he had served as a councilman in the city previously, and people remembered his father fondly. Plus, you know, the money).

The biggest surprise for me was that candidate #4 didn’t get a spot. He was the second-highest spender and the best fundraiser that quarter. His signs were everywhere, and he was part of the ticket headlined by the incumbent who won. It was close (just over 100 votes) but another independent (meaning, not on a ticket) got the nod. His numbers were middle-of-the-road on all counts. But he had previously served, years ago, as a delegate from this very district (or what constituted D6 before redistricting, anyway) and was well-regarded. Looking solely at the numbers, no one would have predicted his win.

So, the numbers only predicted about half (if that) of what happened on that Tuesday. And that gives me hope, because politics (at least at this level) is still ruled by wooing the populace and not by throwing money around. Fundraising is the closest measure to the people, so it was a little surprising that it didn’t correlate more strongly. Maybe outside groups contributed dollars instead of small donors. In D6, the Democratic voters chose experience: the incumbent, the former delegate and the city councilman, instead of the ticket with political newcomers. The issues they are dealing with there are controversial and so I think they wanted people who knew what they were doing in there to sort it out. They also voted in independent candidates instead of tickets- either “the establishment” ticket or “the challengers/fresh faces” ticket. Maybe their annoyance at “the establishment” and dislike of the machine made them wary of the other ticket, which could become the next machine for all they know.

D8, in contrast, went down the ticket in spite of a good showing by the independent candidate. There wasn’t the kind of unhappiness with the status quo, no controversial issue like the government center, in D8, so voters trusted the endorsement of the well-liked senator and popular incumbent. And, again, money didn’t dictate the race’s results (although, in all fairness, the ticket as a whole did spend a crap-ton of money even if individual candidates didn’t).

What is my takeaway here? Hope, that the system maybe isn’t as broken as we thought, at least on this local level. A better understanding of the mindset of the voters in the district, which will help in covering future races. And a caution on using campaign finance as an indicator of electoral outcomes.
I'm feeling: nerdy