Does Campaign Spending Matter?

To move away from the heat of the recent campaign but keep the focus on the relevance of campaign spending on local races, I’d like to look back at 1995. After that election, the Herald did an analysis of spending per vote for all the candidates. The results are pretty instructive. (Note: we can’t do that analysis for this year until February when the final spending reports are in.)

First and third place Chapel Hill finishers, Capowski and Andresen, spent almost the same amount per vote: $1.34 and $1.32 respectively

Second place finisher Chilton was low-spender among the winners at only $0.46 per vote. That helps explain his reputation as a savvy campaigner. (Chilton was also a strong proponent of the voluntary spending limits initiated that year by the Greens and Sierra Club).

Where it gets interesting is at 4th and 5th place. Pat Evans spent $2.37 for fourth place while Richard Franck spent $0.53 to finish 39 votes behind in fifth. It takes nothing away from Evans to suggest that Franck could have spent a bit more and made up 40 votes. If he had spent 65 cents more per vote (bringing his total spending per vote up to half of hers), that would have totaled an additional $2142 which spent smartly could have garnered a few votes. Of course, one could argue that Evans had the additional funds which in itself showed greater popularity. However, her campaign reports showed many large contributions which might indicate the ability of those connected to wealthier contributors to raise and spend more, a point at the heart of the campaign finance reform movement. It would be interesting to compare the total # of contributors and average contribution but I do not have that data.

At a minimum, it seems that we can conclude that while spending cannot make up huge margins like the 1000+ recent defeats of Bachman and Juliano, DR Bryan and Bob Reda, and Lee Pavao, it does make a difference on close races, perhaps potentially a big difference.

In Carrboro, by the way, the winners all spent significantly less. Those low spenders were two incumbents and Zaffron, also a strong grassroots campaigner.



I'd add to e-p-u's list the kind of in-kind contributions people make to campaigns that can't be tracked because they're technically the work of volunteers. I don't mean stuffing envelopes and pounding in signs and manning the polls. I mean significant assistance that the volunteer, who does that kind of work for a living and normally gets paid, gives away for free.

I don't mean to suggest that this is a problem. I'm simply saying that in some cases it amounts to an in-kind donation that simply can't be measured. Tracking the cash is perhaps the closest we can come to gauging what resources a candidate has and what they've spent, but it's not a perfect representation.


The kind of volunteer work you specify would be considered an in-kind contribution and is already subject to campaign reporting law and, as such, would readily be included in any calculation of spending versus a cap.

from the Cumberland County election manual (came up first on a web search):

"In-kind’ contributions (i.e. goods and services provided) are considered as any other contributions and add toward the maximum contribution. "

You can do it with just a little money (more than a little, if your perspective is working-class), but then you better have a lot of time AND energy, or incumbency advantage, or something. It takes a lot more time per week to run a challenger campaign than it does to hold these part-time offices. Any way you cut it, even in a town the size of Carrboro, it is hard for working people, especially with families, to enter local politics.

I think we're just stuck with that phenomenon, which I appreciated when deciding myself whether to give it a run.

Fear not, dear e-p-u! The spending of PACs is not secret but is public record. Although I notice that PACs in Chapel Hill elections seem to spend mostly for endorsement ads and a few flyers to be handed out by volunteers which is not a great deal of spending, you could instead of waving your hands wildly put those hands to work looking at the records.

Your friend at the Ministry of Truth,


And I submit that the analysis is flawed if you can't account for PAC and other soft money spent on behalf of candidates. You also have to factor in incumbency and name recognition coming into the race. Dollars per vote only tell you just that - the dollars spent per vote, but not fully instructive about what really happened in an election.

I think you also must look at the use of the funds spent to draw conclusions about the bang for the buck, as we know all don't spend money on the same things. For example, one candidate buying a phone service for election day (expensive) might add votes, but then again it might not. How do we know?

Are there any Political Scientists out there who study elections?


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