This year’s gubernatorial elections have seen several candidates spending millions upon millions of their own money in order to get a job that pays less than $200,000. Of course, it isn’t about the money, but the ability to affect policy that is driving them to seek the office. (I’ll let the psychologists debate how much simple ego is also involved.) The conventional wisdom is that money can influence elections, but do those who self-fund with large amounts of money always win their races?
If you are running in a California primary and are willing to spend $30 million, the answer is no. Although not because self-funders don’t win. Steve Poizner found out that even if one spends $30 million in a primary, that candidate can still be trounced by another who spends $70 million. Meg Whitman has already set new records for self-funding a state political campaign and she still has three months until the general election.
Last night’s Republican gubernatorial primary in Michigan did result in another self-funder wining a nomination. Rick Snyder spent several million dollars in a multi-candidate to field to win one third of the vote. His two closest competitors each garnered about 25% each.
The final big self-funder of the year is Rick Scott who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Florida against Attorney General Bill McCollum. Their primary is August 24th and Scott is leading comfortably in most recent polls.
With their primary wins (or lead in Florida), what are their prospects for November? If history is any guide, Republicans may be disappointed. The National Institute on Money in State Politics put out a report in June entitled “The Efficacy of Self-Funding a Political Campaign” (http://bit.ly/aY2P0U), and it should give pause to those who think money can buy an election. The study looked at the Top 10 self-funders from 2000 through 2009. Eight of the ten races were for Governor and only Jon Corzine was successful in his first run in 2005. His unsuccessful 2009 re-election race joined six other failed gubernatorial bids in the Top 10. Down ticket races may be a better place for self-funders, since the other two Top 10 self-funders won the seats they were seeking. David Dewhurst was elected Lt. Governor in Texas in 2002 and Steve Poizner had much better luck in his 2006 run for California Insurance Commissioner.
Others who were unsuccessful in their gubernatorial runs included B. Thomas Galisano (I-NY) who spent $74 million of his own money in 2002, Tony Sanchez (D-TX) who spent $60 million in 2002, Steve Wesley (D-CA) who lost the primary after spending $35 million in 2006, and Dick DeVos (R-MI) who spent $35 million trying to knock off Governor Granholm in 2006. Doug Forrester (R-NJ) in 2005 and Kerry Healey (R-MA) in 2006 were the other two in the Top 10.
There must be something about California primaries and $30 million. While not included in the study because it was before 2000, former airline executive Al Checchi spent $35 million in his unsuccessful effort to be the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1998 to join Wesley and Poizner in the $30 million-plus loser club. The other big spenders all made it to the general election.
Of course, the outcome of any race is going to be based on the individual candidates, but the fact that seven of the eight top self-funded races were lost by the self funder should be a reminder that money alone can’t win a race. The skills that often help individuals amass a personal fortune are often not the same skills that can help win an election, no matter how much money a candidate can spend. This is especially true at the top of ticket.
While down ballot races can often be won or lost with campaign strategy, commercials and get out the vote activities, voters expect the person they are electing to lead their state to be in the public and answer the tough questions about how they would govern. Long campaign days and repeated questions from reporters can sometimes bring out personality traits previously hidden, and opposition research can dig up information that can put the self funder in a negative light. And, no surprise, the most negative information seems to come out close to the election when there is little time left to respond.
Because these self funders are usually first time candidates for office, they have to be careful that the image they create about themselves is close to the real thing. When it isn’t, the disconnect can be very jarring for voters, who will then write off the self-funder. With no previous vetting of negative information and no public record on which to fall back, the façade of the “savior” candidate is impossible to recreate if that persona is tarnished. The question isn’t whether or not we will see negative information, the only question is what sort of dirt are we going to see about Whitman, Snyder and Scott?
We will have to wait for the election results to see whether this year’s self funders will follow the historical pattern of recent years or join Governor Corzine as an outlier. Both Ms. Whitman and Mr. Scott have already spent enough to make the Top 10 list. Mr. Snyder may turn to more traditional fundraising for his general election, and he may not make the Top 10 list, which could make him just another candidate that supplemented his campaign with personal funds. There are plenty of those candidates, and if history is any guide, that is the path Mr. Snyder should follow for victory.
By Steve Arthur, email@example.com