The Edge: Competitive Edge Blog

Sacrilege: Money in Politics Can Be a Good Thing

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After spending $11 million on a ballot measure voted on by fewer than 40,000 people, Caruso Affiliated lost its bid to win approval for its Agua Hedionda South Shore Specific Plan. The final count was 20,542 against (52.08 percent), and 18,903 in favor (47.92 percent).

The final turnout for this special election ended up at 62.38 percent. This is 20 percent higher than the November 2014 turnout in Carlsbad, which was during a regularly scheduled gubernatorial election. 49.48 percent, and far higher than the 2012 presidential primary, at just 38.82 percent.

Where all those additional votes came from is something we’d all love to know. What it proves to me is that money in politics can be a very healthy thing.

The high turnout for Measure A doesn’t happen without Caruso pouring an incredible amount of money into this election. Caruso spent $278.73 per vote. With that kind of money, you think voters would have been motivated to vote in favor of Measure A, and that’s why they went to the polls.

This is not the case. The outcome of this election proves money doesn’t control election outcomes. It can successfully encourage interest in an election, but it won’t necessarily drive opinion. This mirrors the academic theory in communication called Agenda Setting Theory. Exposure to an issue through news coverage can’t tell people how to think, but it CAN tell people to think ABOUT it. It’s similar in elections.

See Bush, Jeb for more evidence. The former Florida Governor dropped out of the Republican presidential primary campaign after failing to gain much support. When Gov. Bush formally ended his campaign after losing in South Carolina, he had burned through $162 million, more than any other Republican candidate. He spent the equivalent of $2,800 per vote in his losing effort in Iowa. Several months later, the same fate has befallen Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who raised $140 million.

More money leads to more voter contact which has led to far higher turnout in this season’s Republican primaries. The turnout on the GOP side has been monstrous, eclipsing the 2012 turnout by 140%, on average.  However, as Bush and Cruz have learned, money can’t buy you love in politics.

The postscript to the Carlsbad election: The current land use designations remain in place. Visitor-serving commercial development is allowed on 48 acres and the other 155 acres are designate for open space. Caruso Affiliated can submit its plan or any other plan to the City of Carlsbad through the traditional development process, but the City is not permitted to approve an ordinance for the plan for at least 12 months. So all the election really cost Caruso – aside from the $11 million — is a year-long delay.

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