Focus on issues, not fundraising

Jeff vonKaenel

It’s election season. The California primary is only four months away. This means hundreds of local candidates are raising money, sending out mailings and hosting events to raise cash for their campaigns. The majority of these candidates in contested elections will lose.

Who are the winners? The political consultants, television and radio stations, websites, mailing houses and professional fundraisers who will be paid millions of dollars in Sacramento between now and November 6. I would like to say that newspapers like the News & Review will receive some of these dollars, but we will not.

Elections are important. Who wins is important. But does the money raised for ads, mailings and polling have much impact on the outcomes? The answer is “no,” according to a paper by two California political scientists, summarized in a recent issue of The Atlantic.

David Broockman, a Stanford University assistant professor, and Joshua Kalla, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, analyzed data from 49 field experiments—state, local and federal campaigns.

According to The Atlantic: “For every flyer stuck in a mailbox, every door knocked by an earnest volunteer, and every candidate message left on an answering machine, there was no measurable change in voting outcomes. Even early outreach efforts … tend to fade from memory by Election Day. Broockman and Kalla also estimated that the effect of television and online ads is zero …”

While political advertising had little or no impact on general elections, where the voters tend to vote along party lines, advertising was slightly more effective in primary elections and initiatives. However, “too much money is being spent in the same ways and on the same people.”

Yet political consultants continue to push candidates to raise more money to spend on these apparently useless efforts. Candidates and elected officials are often expected to be on the phone fundraising between 10 and 20 hours a week. Political consultants, who are often paid a percentage of campaign expenditures, have a built-in conflict of interest that can encourage expensive campaigns. As a result, helping voters understand issues, or helping the candidate project a vision for the future are given less priority than fundraising.

It is painful to see civic-minded, intelligent, hard working people who sincerely want to make a difference being manipulated by these consultants. Consultants tell the candidate what their positions should be based on expensive polling data, how many hours to spend on the phone dialing for dollars using consultant-provided scripts, and how to talk or not talk to the media. And, if the candidate wins the election, he or she will be told to start fundraising for the next campaign even before the champagne has lost its fizz.

This so-called professional approach to campaigning, which includes extensive polling, niche marketing and targeted markets with poll-tested words is not working. The amount of money wasted in campaigns is unbelievable. Jeb Bush’s $162 million campaign that earned him only a tiny percentage of the vote is just one example.

Yet there are some elected officials and candidates who spend time focusing on issues and who can project a vision and provide well thought-out answers to voter questions. I hope that this recent study helps encourage more politicians to focus on the issues rather than the fundraising, and on creating genuine connections with the voters rather than scripted ones.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.