Money Matters. Get Over It

June 2006
There's a new candidate for governor, apparently. Chuck Sylvester, the former general manager of the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, says he will run for governor as a write-in Republican candidate. As the Rocky Mountain News reports, here's his motivation:
Chuck Sylvester doesn't like the candidates running for Colorado governor, so he's doing something about it. Sylvester said Tuesday he is running as a Republican write-in candidate for governor in the fall. The former general manager of the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo and Weld County farmer said the candidates are too busy bashing each other and are obsessed with raising money.
I wish Sylvester luck in his campaign, but I'm tired of the complaint about candidates being too obsessed with raising money. You hear this a lot from people who get angry because they think campaigns are all about money, and they resent what they think is a perception that the only thing that matters is who has enough money. But money does matter, and it matters for a very simple and straightforward reason -- it's impossible to reach enough voters without it. People like to say that money shouldn't matter, and they're right, but that's not a valid argument against the importance of raising money in a political campaign. We shouldn't have wars, either, but we do. You simply MUST have a relatively equal amount of money as your opponent if you want to have a real shot of winning your campaign. Maybe that's unfortunate, but it's not a big conspiracy – it's reality. If you want to be angry about the importance of money, don't blame the candidates or the political parties -- blame geography. Money matters because it's so hard to reach the relatively small number of people who actually vote, and it's not realistically possible to even be competitive in a campaign without having money to send direct mail or to run ads on television. But what about volunteers? What if you have a lot of volunteers willing to canvass a neighborhood? Mike Miles had a pretty good volunteer operation when he ran against Ken Salazar for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2004, but he only got about 20 percent of the vote in the August primary. Miles couldn't match Salazar in fundraising, and because of it, he just couldn't get to enough voters in time. The only way volunteers can play a significant enough role to outweigh a lack of money is if you have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people working day in and day out. How realistic is that? Let's look at the numbers... There are 65 house districts in Colorado. Each house district contains somewhere between 25,000 and 60,000 registered voters, depending on how politically-active the area might be (some parts of the state naturally have more registered voters than others, for reasons I won't go into here). In each house district there are about 40 precincts. If we pick an average number of registered voters per house district, say 40,000, and divide them by the average number of precincts (40), we get about 1,000 voters per precinct. It would take one person about eight hours to walk door-to-door in a precinct, and even then most people either won't be home or won't answer the door (it would obviously take longer if you were talking to every single voter, but that wouldn't happen). You can always leave a piece of literature on the door, which is a good thing to do, but if you have no other way to reach them (if you don't have money for direct mail, etc.), then you're probably not going to have made much of an impact. On a larger scale, it would take one person about 320 hours, or more than 13 days, to walk every precinct in a house district one time. During that time, you would probably talk to no more than 4,000 of the 40,000 registered voters in that house district. More frustrating, however, is that 25-30 percent of those registered voters you talk to aren't going to vote on Election Day anyway. So at the end of this whole walk-a-thon, one person, spending 13 days going door-to-door, probably only made some sort of impression on 2,700 of 40,000 possible voters. That's about eight people an hour that you've actually spoken to, but you certainly haven't convinced them to vote for your candidate. The good news is that you dropped literature to 40,000 households, but most of them probably just threw it in the trash. What if you have more volunteers than that? Well, how many are we talking about? A candidate for a state house race would be lucky to have 20 active volunteers (I'm talking about people who are working hard week in and week out, not just people who show up every once in awhile). If one person can walk a precinct in eight hours, four people can do it in two hours; that means that 20 active volunteers could walk five precincts in two hours. That's pretty good, but you've still a long ways to go. Now let's take those numbers a step further. If you are running for a statewide office like governor and you aren't going to be competitive raising money, you need enough volunteers to walk 40 precincts in 65 house districts – that's 2,600 precincts!!! It would take one person, walking eight hours a day, 866 days – almost two-and-a-half YEARS - to walk every precinct in Colorado, and that's not counting the time it takes to drive all over the state. Now, think how many of those people you can reach with direct mail or television ads in one fell swoop. You can quibble with a lot of the numbers above, and most campaigns break out active voters from the registered voter list in order to better target their efforts. I'm not trying to show a statistically correct analysis here – I'm just trying to make the point that money matters because it is logistically impossible to compete in an election without it. You can complain that campaigns are "all about the money" until your Adam's apple turns mushy, but money is the only way you can reach enough voters to get elected. That's the way it is. It's also important to remember that raising money is hard, hard work, especially with the contribution limits we have in Colorado ($400 per person for a state house race, $4,000 per person for a congressional race); the money for these candidates isn't falling out of the sky. Sure, there are special interests and other fundraising organizations that contribute a lot of money to campaigns in big chunks, but candidates like Bill Ritter and Bob Beauprez are spending hours upon hours on the phone calling potential donors. The people who raise a lot of money do it because they work hard at it, not because somebody gave them a secret code to a magical vault. Maybe candidates are obsessed about raising money, but they should be if they want to get elected. They don't have a choice.