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Angle, McMahon led way spending $97 per vote - and lost

By T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 1:10 AM

Is a vote worth $97? Sharron Angle seemed to think so. When all of the campaign spending by the Nevada politican and her supporters was tallied, that's how much it came to for each vote she received in her failed bid to take down Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week.

Angle's campaign, which attracted support from across the country, was the most expensive congressional contest nationwide on a per-vote basis, according to a Washington Post analyis of campaign finance filings and election results.

By comparison, Reid and interest groups backing him spent $69 for each vote he received.

The figures offer one more window into what was the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history - estimated to come to $4 billion once all the money is counted, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance statistics.

But some voters got much more attention than others, and the money did not always buy electoral success. Among the 17 congressional campaigns that cost more than $60 for each vote received, 10 of the candidates were Democrats, and only three of them won.

Even beyond that group, most Democratic incumbents who lost had enjoyed a big headstart in fundraising and had spent much more than their challengers. An influx of money from outside interest groups helped Republicans overcome some of the difference, but in most races won by the GOP, the candidates had less money behind them.

"Money doesn't guarantee victory," said Mark Mellman, a pollster who worked for Reid and other Democrats this year. "You can lose with it, but it's hard to win without it."

Just behind Angle was Republican Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment who lost to state Attorney General Dick Blumenthal (D) for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D) in Connecticut. She spent about $97 per vote - 49 cents less than Angle. Almost all of it (about $47 million) came from McMahon's own pocket.

In California, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman spent $140 million of her own money on her campaign for governor. But because she was running in the country's most-populous state, her per-vote spending fell far behind that of Angle and McMahon.

In upstate New York, Rep. Scott Murphy (D) and his supporters spent $66 for each of the 99,000 votes he received, or about $6.5 million. But he was defeated by retired Army Col. Chris Gibson, who spent $4 million, or $33 per vote.

"We knew that we'd compete on the air but our goal was to win on the ground," said DanOdescalchi, a spokesman for Gibson, who will be sworn in with at least 62 other Republican freshman in January.

The campaign's key to success was its 2,000 volunteers throughout the sprawling, largely rural district in upstate New York, Odescalchi said. Gibson won by almost 10 percentage points.

Campaigns tend to spend most of their money sending out their message to voters, either through broadcast advertising, direct mail or other means. But many campaigns also spend a lot of money raising money, especially if they are using direct mail solicitations.

In the Senate race in Nevada, which attracted outsize attention because of Reid's stature as the top Democrat in the Senate, Angle was able to raise $14 million in one quarter, far more than any of her peers. Angle said in her concession speech that most of the money came from out of state.

The Nevada Senate contest turned into an arms race where neither party could afford to let the other one get an advantage, even if the millions spent on television advertising had little effect after it reached a level of saturation.

"The cost of an ad in L.A. can buy a week of advertising in Reno," said Jim Margolis, Reid's media consultant. "If you were a viewer in Nevada, you were innundated."

Although Reid spent less, he was able to go on the air with advertising immediately after the GOP primary, where Angle, a tea party-backed candidate, bested a former state party chairwoman. Reid's negative ads helped define Angle for voters before she could recover from the primary to get her message out.

The Post analysis relied on campaign finance statistics through the middle of October, and does not account for money donors put into races in the final weeks before Election Day. The dollar-per-vote figures include independent spending by political parties and interest groups through Election Day.

The incoming freshman with the thriftiest campaign was Minnesotan Chip Craavack (R), who beat 18-term veteran Jim Oberstar (D), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Craavack and outside interest groups spent $610,000 on the race or about $5 for every vote he received. Oberstar spent $18 for every vote, or about $2.3 million.

Kyler Nerison, communications director for the Craavack campaign, said the campaign was able to succeed against the incumbent with "just the old fashioned retail campaigning." Craavack spent months driving 30,000 miles through the district, which covers about a third of the state, in an old motor home wrapped with his campaign ensignia.

Nerison described it as "our billboard, our office on the road and our hotel room as well."

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