Money in Politics

Local politics comes at increasingly higher cost than before

By Julia Grochowski - May 2, 2018

NORTH FULTON, Ga. — While national and state elections traditionally draw higher voter turnout, local elections are gaining ground.

And with that added attention, candidates are pouring more money into local races.

“Campaigns are a lot more expensive now than they were just five or six years ago,” said Eamon Keegan, a political consultant and principal of New Prospect Strategies, a market research and consulting firm based in Georgia. “It doesn’t matter if they’re national or local. But local campaigns in particular are a lot more expensive than they were 10 years ago – I’d say about 40 or 50 percent more.”

Keegan estimates that North Fulton candidates now on average spend about $18,000 to $28,000 in a race for mayor or city council.

Historically, national and state elections have seen more money in the game because of their broader scope. The races that pit two parties against one another in particular, especially Democrats and Republicans, see some of the highest spikes in campaign contributions, Keegan said.

On the flip side, local races, especially for nonpartisan seats like mayor and city council, have seen much less in the way of campaign contributions, with some candidates even pledging to limit their accepted contributions.

“A lot of these races often times are sleepy races,” said Mark Rountree, president of Landmark Communications, Inc., a strategic planning, polling and political consulting firm based in Metro Atlanta. “You can win and not spend any money – it can happen and it does happen.

But these once sleepy cities and towns, some of which didn’t even exist that long ago, have really gotten quite large.”

More money doesn’t always win

People tend to assume that candidates who raise the most money have a better chance of winning. And there is some truth to that, Keegan said.

In the 2017 municipal elections in North Fulton, for example, several candidates who won also raised the most money.

In Johns Creek, incumbent Stephanie Endres won Post 5 with 71 percent of the vote and raised $10,000. Her opponent Chris Jackson raised $2,500. It was a closer race between non-incumbents John Bradberry and Vicki Horton for Post 3. Bradberry came out on top with 58 percent of the vote and raised $18,000. Horton raised over $16,000.

A similar story played out in Milton, where incumbent mayor Joe Lockwood took in $21,000 in contributions and won with 66 percent of the vote. His challenger, Laura Rencher, garnered nearly a quarter of that at $4,555. Post 1, incumbent Bill Lusk fell short at the polls against newcomer Laura Bentley, who won with 71 percent of the vote. Her contributions added up to over $22,000 and were nearly 22 percent higher than Lusk’s.

Money, generally speaking, can be a major indicator of who is going to win, especially in larger elections like congressional races, Keegan said.

But as the recent faceoff between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has shown, that isn’t always the case.

The special election made national headlines as the most expensive House election in U.S. history. Ossoff, a political newcomer, raised $8.3 million before the first round of voting and later raised an additional $15 million over a two-month period, according to reports by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Handel, by comparison, raised $4 million during the same two-month period.

Those numbers shocked many in the political world, and the focus on money might have contributed to Ossoff’s loss, Rountree said.

“By the end of the campaign, the main thing many knew about Jon Ossoff was that he raised a lot of money,” Rountree said. “He almost lost his message, because he overdid it with the money. And that can be true on local levels as well.

“When your main conversational point on a candidate is how much money they’ve raised, the candidate has made a mistake.”

This disparity between money raised and winning the campaign in the Handel vs. Ossoff race is a bit of an outlier, but money is even less of an indicator of who will win in local elections, Keegan said.

Last year, the City of Roswell held its biggest election in recent memory, with the mayor and four city council seats up for grabs.

The mayor’s seat, which hadn’t changed in almost 20 years, initially drew in the largest slate of candidates and some of the largest spending.

The race ended in a runoff between Lori Henry, who had previously sat on the city council years earlier, and Lee Jenkins, a politcal newcomer. Jenkins reported Nov. 1, 2017 that his total contributions had been over $71,000. Henry, on the other hand, raised almost a third of that – just $21,000 in the same time span.

Looking purely at money raised, Jenkins would have been favored to win.

But it was Henry who won with 55 percent of the vote.

Just two years earlier, Marcelo Zapata unseated Roswell Councilman Rich Dippolito after pledging not exceed $2,500 in campaign contributions. Dippolito, on the other hand, reported nearly $25,000 in contributions.

“When it comes to local races, money isn’t as much of an indicator,” Keegan said. “Those kinds of local elections are more community based. It’s more of a combination of who you know and if your stance on issues are on point for your area.

“Money is always important, but when it comes to local races, it’s not as important.”

Costs and fundraising

Fundraising is one of the first jobs on most candidates’ ‘to-do’ lists when starting a campaign. In North Fulton, the fundraising game has seen a shift in recent years.

“We’re seeing more in the way of professional fundraisers getting involved in local campaigns,” Rountree said. “That wouldn’t have been common at all 20 years ago.”

And with those professional fundraisers come “significant” misconceptions for many people, including candidates.

“The people who are fundraisers, normally, are raising money that simply you would have raised on your own,” Rountree said. “What they do is they help the candidate get organized and maximize contributions. The fundraisers themselves don’t bring some group of donors to the table that the candidate wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. There’s no mysterious group of donors.”

For local elections, fundraising and winning tends to hinge on who you know more than anything else, Rountree said.

A candidate’s existing contacts are the primary source of contributions, Rountree said. He estimates that up to 95 percent of what a fundraiser can bring is based on the candidate’s existing contacts.

It’s friends, family and business contacts first, then “lots of cold calling,” Keegan said.

That campaign money is “heavily” spent on what Keegan identifies at two different types of costs: fixed and variable.

Fixed costs are for websites and consulting retainers. Variable costs include most kinds of advertising, including direct mail, signage, digital advertising, newspapers and phoning. Polling, unlike in national and state elections, is not common for local races.

“There’s a perception that local elections are done on shoe leather alone – that it’s just people walking around asking for votes,” Rountree said. “There is some truth to that. But it often surprises people just how much it costs to run.”

And while contentious issues or candidates can increase voter turnout and campaign expenses, population size also weighs heavily on a campaign’s cost.

In Alpharetta, for example, there were almost 37,000 registered voters in last year’s municipal election, according to the Fulton County Election Office. Almost 4,000 actually cast a ballot in the municipal election. That is almost twice as many ballots cast than in the 2013 municipal election, when there were 31,000 registered voters in Alpharetta.

“These cities have ballooned,” Rountree said. “You’re talking about advertising to thousands of households. Mail costs the same whether you’re running for president, Congress, city council or dog catcher. It will cost what it costs to do direct mail. And that can be expensive.”