Expert: Money had limited impact on city election
By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Has increased campaign spending translated into higher voter turnout? In municipal elections, the answer seems to be no.
Even though the 2017 municipal elections saw an increase in fundraising and campaign expenditures, local elections were still decided by 17.68 percent of the voting population. That percentage is slightly lower than the 17.76 percent who voted in 2015.
The 2017 election cycle saw about $186,000 in campaign fundraising, roughly $22,000 more than the $164,000 noted in pre-election reports from the 2015 election. The 2017 figure does not include money spent by Greenville Jobs Now, a political action group that supported a slate of “pro job candidates” with radio, television, online and print advertisements over the course of the election. The group has not disclosed its expenditures.
Based on the cost of advertisement in media throughout the city and the frequency of the ads, conservative estimates place the group’s expenditures on a level with most serious candidates.
If the money spent isn’t luring people to the polls, are fundraising efforts worth the trouble?
Maybe not. According to one East Carolina University professor, money spent in elections rarely has any effect on voter turnout, or even on voter choice.
Jody Baumgartner, a professor in ECU’s political science department — which specializes in American and comparative politics as well as researches campaigns and elections — said the first thing people have to understand is that money does not always mean much in politics.
”There’s a free market approach to campaign expenditures, that at a certain point you have to believe you’re going to hit a rate of diminishing returns,” Baumgartner said. “After which, any additional dollar spent isn't going to make any difference to any person anywhere. There’s not necessarily a connection between the amount of money spent in a race and turnout, that’s a general rule. It is the case that turnout depends on a number of things, one of those things is the competitiveness of a race. If it’s perceived to be a competitive race, then more people will turn out.”
Baumgartner said he believes that public perception is the only thing that campaign money affects.
If the voting public sees more is being spent, people may assume a race is more competitive and that their vote is more necessary to ensure a candidate with beliefs similar to their own will win, he said. Outside of that, money spent for general advertisements rarely is able to persuade a large percent of the population to go to the polls, or the smaller voting percentage to form a different opinion on a candidate.
Baumgartner speculated that one of the reasons fundraising totals increased but voter turnout did not is because donors with an interest in specific campaign issues gave more to their candidate of choice.
”All you have to do is drive around and pay attention and have half a brain and you’ll see the signs everywhere, like Overton,” he said. “Real estate is huge here, and I think at some point that’s got to come into the discussion — what local interests are in this ever-expanding community, this ever-expanding metropolitan area.”
As Greenville continue to grow, Baumgartner said its main economic drivers — such as people in real estate — will continue to have an increased interest in supporting political candidates, while the average voter’s interest likely will remain the same.
Baumgartner also noted that with this increase, critics of money in politics will say that too much money is being spent and that it dilutes the democratic process, a sentiment he disagrees with.
“If we were to take the last (national) cycle, which was more than a billion dollars, you have to ask, how much is Pepsi going to spend advertising its product this year?” he said. “That is for a soft drink. How much money is too much money informing people what their choice is for the next four years in a democracy? What is an unreasonable amount of money?”
Baumgartner said that the foundation of the democratic process is having informed citizens voting. Regardless of the slant of political advertisement, the core concept remains the same — informing the voter. He said hearing the numbers for the Greenville election, he does not believe too much money was spent.
“If we look at that in the context of Greenville, say around $180,000 divided among the greater metropolitan area, let’s call it a $1.50 each to reach out and inform people about what’s going on, is that excessive? and in my opinion, it’s no,” he said.
Candidate fundraising compared to the amount of votes the candidate recieved show that candidates spent a range of $1-$14 per per vote in their favor. The candidate who spent the most money, Calvin Mercer at about $14 a vote, lost the mayoral election to P.J. Connelly, who spent about $7.5 a vote.
Connelly’s total does not include the support he received from Greenville Jobs Now, which campaigned heavily for his election. Baumgartner said that none of these figures seemed excessive to him.
“A lot of people are going to disagree with me on that, and what they’re going to say when they disagree with me is, ‘Well in 2003 we only spent $1.’ Well that’s not answering the right question,” he said. “The question is, ‘Is it too much’ and ‘Is there a too much?’ Is $7 per voter too much to money spend to make sure all the voters have all the information that they need?”
Baumgartner said that even negative campaign ads are still valuable to the general public.
“Most people who study campaign ads, at least in political science, would agree that even though there’s a fair amount of mud slinging, there’s a fair amount of negative ads, negative campaigning, at the end of the day political advertisements do fulfill a necessary function of informing voters,” he said. “To people that want to say, ‘It’s not really informing,’ yes it is. It may be doing other things, but at the end of the day people are learning, and that’s the objective there.”
Baumgartner said that overall he was not concerned about the amount of money flooding into politics, because of its limited reach on the voting public. He said that more advanced campaign techniques can be far more effective, but most of those are tailored to advertising to specific interest groups, rather than large swaths of people, and those make more of an effect than blanket media advertisements.
“The point is that these dollars that are flooding in, say to the Daily Reflector, wouldn’t necessarily have a result on voter turnout,” he said. “You just wouldn’t expect that to happen necessarily, just like you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have much of an impact on vote choice.
“They have an effect on the margins, and sometimes the margins matter, but for you to say we’ve got this much money spent and turnout remained pretty constant just doesn’t surprise me very much.,” Baumgartner said.
Contact Seth Gulledge at firstname.lastname@example.org and 252-329-9579
|P.J. Connelly||$44,287||5,836||$7.5 per vote|
|Calvin Mercer||$61,116||4,404||$14 per vote|