Do political campaigns really matter?

Do Political Campaigns Matter?

Why in the world would a campaign consultant ask the seemingly heretical question, “Do political campaigns really matter?”

The answer: partially purposefully provocative combined with another part intellectual curiosity, but as we prepare to spend billions of dollars to elect our next President, we should explore the question.

The Interesting & Peculiar Case of Alachua County

As a political operative in a Democratic dominated area, I’ve run multiple campaigns in this Democratic stronghold of a county.  I have the scar tissue to prove it.

Active Registered Voters as of:05/01/15

  • Democrats:74,076
  • Republicans:45,165
  • Others:39,406
  • Total:158,647

Knowing the odds, I’ve often wondered what would happen if one Republican candidate ran a campaign and one Republican didn’t.   Would it matter?  Interestingly, Alachua County was presented with that scenario in 2014.

Peculiar Case of the Alachua 2014 Tax Collector Campaign

In 2014, Alachua County experienced the most gentle and amiable campaign maybe ever witnessed by mankind.

In this year, Alachua County held a partisan, open election for Tax Collector.  Both candidates seemingly made a gentleman’s agreement not to say anything other than complimentary things about one another.   For campaign operatives used to mixing it up, this campaign was an anathema.

Jon C. Costabile’s, the Rep, total expenditure was $11,770.00.

Summary of campaign : He qualified by petition.  He put up some signs, printed small runs of campaign literature, and repaid close to $6,500 in candidate loans.

John Power’s, the Dem, total expenditure was $32,466.00.

Summary of campaign:  He printed some palm cards, put out some signs, sent 2 mail pieces, paid qualifying fee and repaid $6,000 in candidate loans.

Tax Collector Campaign Summary

Name Party Tot. Exp Total Vote % Vote
Jon Costabile REP $11,770.00  30,864 41.15%
John Power DEM $32,466.00  44,145 58.85%

It is truly difficult to describe just how much of a non-event, non-campaign this was.  Both candidates were genuine friends, and the entire campaign consisted of “I would like the job, but if my opponent is elected, it’s cool.”  The campaign had little to no media coverage, little to no actual campaigning.

In summary, the Republican spent a little over $5,000 in a county-wide, partisan race.

While boring and bewildering, this campaign provides a unique case study getting to the question of “In Alachua County, if a Republican candidate does little more than put their name on the ballot, what % of the vote would they obtain?”

In a sense, this 2014 tax collector campaign provides the baseline for Republican candidates in Alachua County.

Campaign Comparison

At the exact same time in 2014, Alachua County had a hotly contested County Commission race between Republican John Martin and Democrat Ken Cornell.   These two guys were the antithesis of the tax collector race.  They did comparing and contrasting media and for all intents and purposes both candidates ran robust campaigns.

John Martin’s, the Republican, total expenditure was $65,945.00

Summary of campaign:  No primary, signs, mailers, tv, phone calls, newspaper.

Ken Cornell’s, the Democrat, total expenditure was $101,535.11

Summary of campaign:  Contested primary campaign, mail, television, polling, campaign staff, radio

Because of the primary, we break out contributions and expenditures using the primary date as the demarcation line:

 Cornell $ Contributions Expenditures
Primary $56,605.81 $44,856.08
General $55,332.50 $56,782.23

County Commission Campaign Summary

Name Party Tot. Exp Total Vote % Vote
Jon Martin REP $65,945.00 32,769 43.35%
Ken Cornell DEM $101.535.11 42,816 56.65%

 

So we are now able to compare and contrast the two types of campaigns during the same election cycle:  no campaign versus a more robust campaign.

In a macro view and with a 6x difference in expenditure amount between the Republican candidates, what change in results do we observe between the non-campaign and the robust campaign?  +2.2%.

Historical Comparison

Just to remove the doubt that there was something specific about these two campaigns,  I also looked at ALL partisan, county wide races in Alachua County since 2002.

Total Races 46
Rep Wins 4
Dem Wins 42

Noting the differences between Presidential and Gubernatorial election years, we find:

Average Win %
Average Dem Pres Yr 63.34%
Average Dem Non-Pres Year 58.76%

So we can observe these two campaigns are at the averages of all campaigns since 2002.

Conclusions / Questions

So have we definitively proved that campaigns don’t matter?  No, I don’t think so.  We can conclude that running Republican candidates county wide in Alachua County is extremely difficult regardless of the campaign.

But we aren’t the only ones asking the question.  With the renewed focus on modeling and fundamentals, we see it all around us.  Thomas Holbrook dared to ask the same question in his 1996 book “Do Campaigns Matter?”  and David Farrell and Rudiger Schmitt-Beck dared to ask the same in 2002 with  “Do Political Campaigns Matter?  Campaign Effects in Elections and Referendum”

The debate rages on.

The political nerd term is “campaign effects”.

To unpack the effects of campaigns, it is helpful to think about when exactly campaigns matter. Two factors are paramount: the number of undecided voters and the balance of resources among the competing candidates.”  – John Sides and Jake Haselswerdt, George Washington University

A summary of the findings?  Campaigns do matter, when all things are equal, and campaigns matter at the margins.

Most importantly, we can take this knowledge and ask some additional questions:

Noting the recent success of Republicans / Conservatives in the City of Gainesville elections, how can we reconcile that success with elections in Alachua County?

If we can explore that question, then we will have the recipe to break inertia in Alachua County?  (and I have my next blog post)

Next week :  The Recipe for Success to Break Inertia in Alachua County for Republicans

About Alex Patton

5 Responses to “Do political campaigns really matter?”

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  1. Tim says:

    The logic in this is flawed.

    Maybe Costable piggybacked on Martin’s campaign?

  2. Alex Patton says:

    Thanks for commenting. I considered the possibility you mentioned and it was the main reason I took a look at every partisan campaign in the county since 2002.

    This post certainly was not meant to pass judgement on any of the campaigns mentioned or to assign blame. I was trying to explore a much larger question using these two campaigns as examples.

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