Dollars per Vote

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday about spending in California elections where candidates burned through the equivalent of $97 for every vote they received. Those figures always seem like an invitation to armchair quarterbacking. Here in Illinois, Scott Lee Cohen led statewide candidates, spending upwards of $26 for every vote he received. For that kind of money, he could have taken his supporters out for a pretty nice meal. At the other end of the spectrum, Robert Enriquez spent just one penny per vote. (Enriquez, in case you've forgotten, was the Republican nominee for Secretary of State). But since both lost, it's hard to see how this analysis illuminates what candidates should be doing in order to win.

The issue isn't so much the amount candidates spend as the source of their funds. When a candidate spends a lot, the barrage of mail, broadcast and cable communications often forces their opponents to re-think their own voter outreach efforts. Often, these re-evaluations lead candidates to boost their fundraising targets. Most incumbents raise between $50K and $100K over the course of their terms, and for most of them, that's plenty. Every cycle, though, the parties decide to duke it out in districts around the state, and those races quickly zoom upwards in combined fundraising.

It is not necessary to spend the most to win. Indeed, many of the Democrats who lost last week vastly outspent their Republican opponents. But it is necessary to have the resources, financial and otherwise, to get your message out. When responding to a sudden tsunami of messaging from an opponent, candidates turn to sources of ready cash -- PACs, parties and the legislative leaders -- in order to keep their message before the voters. The problem is less how much they spend as where they get the money to spend. What obligations might they feel toward those donors who helped them out?

We'll be watching the disclosure reports in January and throughout the next year to answer that question. And we'll be rebuilding our website to make it easier for you to develop your own answers.