Why Is There So Little Money In Politics? California Edition

Why Is There So Little Money In Politics?” is one of the many provocative questions asked by political scientists who study campaigns and lobbying. I usually ask this question about lobbying, but there was an interesting piece in today’s New York Times that begs that question of the California gubernatorial race between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown.

To me this is an interesting case because there is clearly a lot of money being spent in this particular campaign – it just isn’t being spent very well. Whitman’s campaign has spent a record-setting $163 million, while the Brown campaign has spent about $46 million. And despite this immense spending gap, Jerry Brown is, and pretty much has been all along, likely to win. What does this say about the value of spending? What does it say to our question about how cheap office is?

We won’t know until the dust settles next week, but I suspect the reason people don’t spend more on political campaigns is because there is only so much to be spent. My experiences in both political marketing and GOTVing lead me to think there are diminishing marginal returns to campaign spending that can be reached quite quickly, and my experience in electioneering leads me to think that there are severe limits to what campaigning can do for your prospects. Consider a few ultimate truths about political campaigning:

  • Most campaign work is low-skill, low-wage labor. Political campaigns are intern-heavy, grunt work-heavy affairs. Knocking on doors, scripted phone polling, sealing envelopes, putting up signs, staffing events – these are activities that have time as their primary expenditure, little more. There doesn’t seem to be any reason actually staffing a campaign should be outrageously expensive. Also, as such activities basically have well-understood output capacity, big-spending campaigns are probably facing huge inefficiencies from overlap.
  • Most people don’t watch political television. If the big news out of California is accurate and most of Whitman’s spending is going towards negative television ads, she’s systematically misallocating her funds.
  • No one seems to have yet considered that the state of the economy is an anti-incumbent as it is everywhere else. Why should we expect the incumbent party running a particularly vulnerable leadership-switching campaign in the 2010 economy to be able to make the kinds of inroads political campaigns don’t usually make, anyway? Brown is technically the “challenger” here, so in these economic conditions his campaign should enjoy all the usual perks associated with that status.
  • Brown probably already has a well-defined institutional framework. As a former Democratic governor, Brown is probably well-ingrained in the institutional memories of California unions, local governments, and state-sector employee organizations. His campaign and staff are probably already in a good position to reactivate the nascent resources of private- and public-sector organizations that had previously acted as Brown supporters.

My point is that the reason there’s so little money in political campaigning is because candidates probably have a pretty good idea of what the organizational needs of their campaigns are, and can probably fill them with relative ease. Whitman’s is just a case of a bloated, inefficient organization, which is suffering as much as any such organization would. Additionally, as a fallen former candidate, Brown has a lot of traditional advantages: As a challenger his money is worth more, as an ex-statesman California’s institutional memory is in his favor, and as a challenger in a bad economy, his odds are good.

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