As Election Day approaches, it’s important to take a minute and remember that campaigns cost money – sometimes lots and lots of it.
The relationship between campaign spending and votes is complex. Campaign spending is often dependent on a candidate’s perceived ability to win the election. For example, if a challenger is viewed to have a shot, that will likely mean high spending on both sides. On the other hand, if one candidate is viewed to have a much greater chance of winning, like say, a Democratic incumbent in San Francisco, then spending will be low. Note the differences here: A well-funded incumbent likely has a lower chance of winning than a less-funded one, while the opposite is true of challengers. This makes determining the exact effect of money on politics difficult. All things being equal, however, more money just doesn’t hurt: Experienced staffers, office space, direct mail and extra large pepperoni pizzas for volunteers all cost money, and even the most efficient campaign needs donations to win.
Using the city of San Diego’s open data portal,  I plan to examine what some of the current campaigns represent and how they’re making their cases to voters, starting with the race for City Council District 9.
These numbers relate what has been contributed to each of these campaigns – not what has been spent. We’re currently between filing deadlines, so we won’t have an exact understanding of what has been spent until later on. In any case, it’s reasonable to assume that money raised is money that’s meant to be spent. Contributions come with a lot of interesting information. Campaign contributors list their occupations, their locations and the intended purpose of the donation.
Four candidates battled for the seat in the June primary: Ricardo Flores, Emerald’s chief of staff; Georgette Gomez, a community advocate; Sarah Saez, a union organizer; and Araceli Martinez, an attorney. Flores and Gomez were the top-two vote-getters, and advanced to November. I won’t spend too much time analyzing the primary race, but it is revealing to see the amount of money donated to each of these candidates to get an idea of the barriers to entry in a race.
Clearly, the candidates who are heading into November received considerably more in donations than those who aren’t – and that’s probably not a coincidence. This relationship doesn’t appear to be exactly linear, though.
It’s possible that this is an illustration of an idea economists call diminishing marginal returns , where for each additional unit of a given input (in this case money) put into a system, less output (in this case votes) is created. For example, despite having nearly 1.5 times more money than Gomez, Flores only received a little less than 12 percent more of the vote. On the other end, there’s Martinez, who got just about three times less votes than Flores despite receiving nearly 400 times less money. Candidate messaging, volunteer mobilization, demographics, even endorsements all have a role to play in this equation, and while money can be a huge help getting your name and platform out there, it can’t necessarily buy the vote of someone who fundamentally disagrees with you on policy.
You might feel a temptation here to draw a linear trend using the top three candidates and leaving Martinez as a high-performing outlier, but I’d caution against that. Four data points just don’t constitute a genuine statistical finding. Bottom line: Be skeptical of claims that any candidate wins a race this election solely because of money, but remember money’s importance for getting things off the ground.
Now let’s focus on Flores and Gomez. I’ll also begin factoring in donations since the primary election in June. Flores has now raised almost three times as much money as Gomez, with less than 1.5 times as many unique contributors (268 to 197). This would indicate that Flores’ donors contribute more on average. Sure enough, intuition holds true when we dive into the actual numbers.
We can visualize the difference between these two ranges in a little bit more detail. This next chart may require some explanation. Here is the number of times each candidate has received a donation at a given dollar amount.
Both candidates see the largest cluster of donors at dollar amounts under $500. These are the individual donors, the folks who visit fundraisers and toss a check in an envelope after they shake hands with the candidate and respond to email calls to action. Less noticeable on this chart is each candidate’s larger donations. While these are infrequent, they can make all the difference. First, let’s look at the individual donors. Just who are these folks? Because donation slips require donors reveal a certain amount of personal information, profiles of each candidate’s supporters emerge. Most donations include donor occupation data. These are the top 10 occupations for each candidate’s donors:
A lot of these candidates’ political support comes from retired folks, but that’s not atypical. After all, the two biggest resources someone can give to a political campaign are time and money, and retired folks tend to have more of each than most other people. Retired people are also more likely to be property owners, giving them a vested interest in some of the issues that are more typically decided by local representatives like zoning and land use decisions. Attorneys rank highly with both campaigns as well.
We notice a lot of managerial titles in both candidates’ donor pools as well: CEO, director, vice president and so on. Business owners and executives are another group with extra income that intuitively have a lot to gain from supporting like-minded representatives. And of course, both candidates draw support from their own cadre of local political consultants – though the ones who support Flores all identify themselves as the principal of their respective firms. There are some notable differences, however. Gomez seems to draw more support from the local academic community, receiving donations from several university professors, while Flores attracts more physicians and homemakers.
In terms of large donations, both candidates have received over $10,000 from the local Democratic Party and have a handful of high-dollar donors each. The primary difference between the two donor pools turns out to be substantial donations made to Flores by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, totaling nearly $100,000. Most of these donations are tagged for the design, printing and postage of campaign literature. Meanwhile, most of Gomez’s high-dollar donations come in the form of artwork that was donated for a fundraiser. We also see some familiar names, such as former Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, former Councilman William Jones, Qualcomm scion Alan Viterbi and political lawyer Bob Ottilie.
It’s also illustrative to see where these different populations come from. Contributor data also includes some basic address information such as city, state and ZIP code.
Each candidates’ political center of gravity predictably revolves around District 9, though Flores’ donors cluster more around his home in the Kensington-Talmadge area, while Gomez’s are located more in her native City Heights. Flores also has a larger cluster of donors in the downtown area than Gomez.
It’s safe to say that both candidates’ donor bases are reflective of their backgrounds. Flores’ donor base takes on a decidedly establishment, insider flair – to be expected of a longtime veteran of the downtown political scene. Gomez’s base, on the other hand, paints a picture of a more grassroots campaign.
Grant Oliveira is a freelance public policy research and data analysis consultant. He moonlights as host of the travel series “The Celebration.”  He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org  or on Twitter at @OliveiraGrant .