and the life of a county clerk
Some thoughts about campaign spending.
(Also posted to Michigan Liberal.)
In Jess Unruh's famous formulation, money is the mother's milk of politics. Nobody in a political campaign can be unmindful of this. Still, wealthy self-funded candidates such as Dick DeVos and Mitt Romney have demonstrated that it's not possible to simply buy electoral victory.
Perhaps this is an awkward subject to raise in an election year where Democrats, for once, are raising more money than Republicans. But if we and our candidates are to make the best use of this advantage, we need to understand that a well-funded campaign has its own set of risks and pitfalls.
My own cynical rule of thumb is that, the more money a campaign has, the higher the proportion that is wasted. In other words, when money is not a constraint, a big campaign stays in better hotels, eats better food, has a nicer headquarters in a more expensive neighborhood, etc., etc., things which do almost nothing to actually win the election. That's why, contrary to conventional wisdom, shoestring campaigns often beat well-funded campaigns.
Recent news coverage of one of the presidential campaigns highlights lavish spending on catering and luxury hotels, and brings this issue to the forefront.
Now, carping over specific items in one campaign might be a little unfair. Many of us have direct experience of the difficulties of quickly creating a large and temporary organization, when the tactical objectives are constantly changing, and all the participants are amateurs.
But more than that, a large organization is inherently less efficient than a small one. The bigger the entity, the higher the overhead costs, the transaction costs, the communication costs. A great metaphor for this is construction. You can build a hundred identical houses cheaper per house than you can build one house. But a skyscraper costs enormously more per usable square foot than a one-story office building.
In tangible political terms, what's necessary and what's wasteful depends critically on the context. A typical city council campaign doesn't need office space, but a gubernatorial campaign can't do without.
When planning your campaign this year, or any year, here are a few thoughts I would suggest you bear in mind.
1. The big picture. A political campaign is brought into being to win an election. Don't lose sight of the main goal when making decisions on campaign activity and spending.
2. Ethic of frugality. Don't spend campaign money on a new coffeepot, when a volunteer could loan you one for free. Spend money on voter contact instead of creature comforts. Be a good steward for the money entrusted to you by your contributors.
3. Maintain some objectivity. When you're the candidate, it's easy to see each and every manifestation of the opponent as a personal attack that has to be "answered". All too often, when the candidate sees the other side has a radio ad, or a billboard, the budget goes out the window. Sure, sometimes the campaign plan has to adapt to circumstances, but don't waste money trying to keep up with your opponent's waste of money.
4. You can't keep it secret. As soon as you file each campaign finance report, people are looking at it. You may think that the thousand dollars spent at Victoria's Secret is buried at the bottom of page 137, but it may be in the blogs the next day -- or in your opponent's next attack piece.
5. Volunteers and candidate effort are more important than money. No amount of money can buy enthusiastic support. Paid staff are easier to control and direct than volunteers, but if you can't recruit and motivate volunteers, you're not going to win.
Presidents Day Fundraiser
My term as County Clerk is up at the end of the year. I love the job and I've accomplished a lot, but there's lots more to do.
Hence, I'm seeking re-election in the August primary and November general election. I have no definite word on who my opposition will be, but there have been plenty of rumors, and I need to be ready.
My campaign committee is holding a Presidents Day Fundraiser on Monday, February 18, 5pm, at Leopold Brothers Brewpub, 523 S. Main Street, in downtown Ann Arbor.
Many of us are mourning the impending loss of this place; here's a chance to visit Leopold's before it closes.
Alternatively, if you can't make it on Monday, but wish to contribute to the campaign, make checks to Kestenbaum for Clerk-Register and send them to P.O. Box 2563, Ann Arbor MI 48106. No cash or corporate checks.
What happens at a political fundraiser? Essentially, people come in, drop off a check in a bowl near the door, mill around, eat, drink, and talk about politics or whatever. At some point, somebody stands up and introduces all the politicos who are present, and I make a very brief speech. Food is free, alcohol costs. Pretty much like a party, other than that.
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