The Edge: Competitive Edge Blog

Money Can’t Buy You Love, But In Politics It Can Buy Your Attention

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Two days after Carlsbad residents voted whether to allow commercial development alongside designated open space on 200+ acres between the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and Cannon Road, we still don’t know whether Measure A passed or failed.

CarlsbadThe San Diego County Registrar of Voters must review 7,100 outstanding ballots which could make the difference. The
current vote count is 16,727 votes against Measure A (50.28 percent) with support for the measure at 16,541 votes (49.72 percent). According to the Registrar, there are 4,100 mail ballots, and 3,000 “provisional” ballots that need additional verification before they can be counted. The results are not expected earlier than Friday, February 26, and possibly not until Monday, February 29.

If you think I’ve got any idea how the provisional and late absentee votes will break, you’re reading the wrong blog. I’m interested in a bigger picture. How did this special election generate such a high voter turnout? And from my perspective advising campaign teams, can this be replicated?

This measure was placed on the ballot through a citizen referendum sponsored by the developer, Caruso Affiliated. It gathered 20,000 signatures to put its development project on the ballot in Carlsbad, and thereby speeding up the development process by avoiding California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis normally required for similar development projects.

The turnout for this special election will end up somewhere near 63 percent. That means 26 percent more Carlsbadians cast ballots this February than did in the regularly scheduled November 2014 gubernatorial election.

Precisely where all those additional votes came from is something we’d all love to know.

That the high turnout tells me is that money in politics can be a very healthy thing.  See, the high turnout for Measure A doesn’t happen without Caruso pouring an incredible amount of money into this election. Caruso spent $10.5 million on this campaign. Assuming all 7,100 outstanding ballots are counted, that comes to $260.11 per vote. You’re thinking “bad investment;” I’m thinking “good civics lesson.” That kind of money means more of the electorate gets communicated with and that generates interest which in turn boosts turnout.

Even if Measure A squeaks out a victory at this point, this election’s clear lesson: money doesn’t control election outcomes. The correlation between dollars and winning in this case is zero and it may have even been negative (meaning Measure A got fewer votes as Caruso spent more money). Money successfully encouraged people to be interested in an election, but it didn’t drive opinion. This mirrors what academics in the communication field call Agenda Setting Theory. Exposure to an issue through news coverage is inefficient at telling people how to think, but it CAN tell people what to think ABOUT. It’s similar in elections.

See Bush, Jeb(!) for more evidence of big money’s lack of influence in elections. The former Florida Governor recently dropped out of the Republican presidential primary campaign after failing to gain much support. When Gov. Bush formally ended his campaign post-South Carolina, he had burned through over $150 million, more than any other Republican candidate and second overall only to Hillary Clinton (also fighting for her political life). He spent the equivalent of $2,800 per vote in his losing effort in Iowa.

Back in Carlsbad, Caruso will now wait until all the votes are counted to determine its next move. If Measure A is losing by less than 100 votes, Caruso can cover its bases and ask for a recount. But unless there is systemic voter fraud or a big mistake by the Registrar, there is less than a one in one thousand chance of changing the outcome. Recounts almost never change the outcome of an election.

It might not matter the long run. Caruso Affiliated can now revert back to the traditional process of going through the bureaucracy and getting its CEQA review to gain approval for the project.

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