There’s a lot of talk, both in the media and on Twitter, about the meaning of the Los Angeles Unified School District school board races. There are those who are trying to spin the story line that this was a flat rejection of outside money in political races.
Of course, the people making this argument are, for the most part, just repeating what “everyone knows” about money in politics. Unfortunately, as humorist Josh Billings once said, “The problem is not what people don’t know; it’s what they do know that just ain’t so.” But having raised campaign money, spent campaign money, and advised others where to spend their campaign dollars, here’s what I know about money in politics:
- It matters. But not as much as you might think. Sure, campaigns cost money. Polling, voter ID, signs, and mail don’t come cheap. But there is a saturation point beyond which more money won’t have much of an impact. (This is a lesson Karl Rove learned in 2012.) Also, as Alexander Russo points out, the money differential in the marquee race in Los Angeles was much less than some advocates have claimed. The coalition spent $1.4 million in that race (not the highly touted $5 million figure), while the UTLA spent $1.1 million.
- Where the money comes from matters very little to voters. I have actually polled on this issue. One of my opponents received a contribution from an Internet pornographer. We thought that surely this would be a terrific issue to use in the race. It was not. This is one of those issues that voters say they care about, but it is not an issue that actually changes anyone’s mind.Still, reporters continue to make this the biggest part of their story line. It’s quantifiable. It’s also easy because it’s available to reporters who don’t leave their offices. This may be why Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, suggests (with her tongue only partly in her cheek) that reporters should be barred from writing campaign stories until they have “spent time inside a field office and have the comfort with the street-level politics that an engaged activist would develop after a few months of regular volunteer shifts on a modern campaign.”
- The single best investment of campaign dollars, especially in a low-turnout, low-information campaign like a school board race, is in voter ID. This is why the union money has an outsized impact in local races. Unions know who their voters are and they spend money early to communicate with them. A $250,000 contribution on the last day will have almost no impact if the campaign doesn’t know who to get to the polls.
There will be many post-mortems of how money was spent in L.A. (Who did that campaign mail? And did anybody do any polling first?) But for now, we come back to some of the truths about politics: It’s hard to defeat an incumbent. And in a low-turnout election, knowing who your voters are is priceless.