Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The costs of running for office (or, What I learned in the SSFUSD race)

(Note: I ran for the South San Francisco Unified School District's Board of Trustees in the November 2014 election. I know it may not seem so, because I didn't mention it on this blog, but I did. I had a website and everything! I didn't win, BTW. This time.)

Top vote-getter Rick Ochsenhirt (center) is formally sworn in by former Assemblyman Gene Mullin at the SSFUSD Board meeting on Dec. 17, 2014. Photo by John Baker.

Early on Wednesday, I filed papers with the Secretary of State to officially close my campaign committee (closing it by the end of the year allowed me to avoid a $50 fee).

It’s a bit of closure on what was an illuminating, unusual experience that was both disappointing and rewarding. More thoughts on that below. But first, let’s look at the math…

In the latest (and likely final) tally from the San Mateo County Elections Office, I got 2,801 votes (thanks to all!). For those votes, my campaign spent a grand total of $2,228.10. For those counting, it means I spent roughly 79.5 cents per vote. (For reference, my last three campaign finance reports are available here. Final filing starts on page 27 of the pdf document.)

To put that number in perspective, in the 2012 US Presidential election, Barack Obama’s campaign spent $10.37 per vote (or $16.73 when independent, outside money is included) and Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $7.11/$20.09).  In other words, I ran a campaign about 13 times more efficient than the president’s!

I have no idea (officially) how well how the other candidates did, as no other candidate has posted their campaign finance data online (despite at least one promise to do so), and I’ve no inclination to take a bus or car down to the elections office on remote Tower Road in unincorporated San Mateo to pull campaign finance papers and find out. But I’d guess that I’d be slightly below the median in terms of cost per vote.

Anecdotally and observationally, I’d guess candidates Sue Olinger (who seem to have spent next to nothing), Monica Peregrina-Boyd (who dropped out of the race after filing) and possibly Phil Weise may have been marginally more efficient. I’d guess each of the other four candidates were less efficient.

My three biggest expenditures were signage ($600.84), filing fees with both the County and State ($529.36), and my share of the printing costs for the countywide Democratic Party mailer ($450).

My three biggest donors were myself ($788.10), my father-in-law ($300), and fellow candidate Patrick Lucy ($200 – donated after the election {Thanks Patrick!}). About 20 other donors, with contributions ranging from $25 to $150, made up the difference.

From a candidate’s prespective, and as someone who’s covered local elections in San Mateo County since 1998, I really don’t think the lessons learned this election are really that surprising. Some old observations again proved true. For example:

  • Some voters rely more on candidate name recognition and occupational titles rather than looking at a candidate’s education and experience;
  • Who supports a candidate is sometimes more important than what the candidate supports;
  • And, above all, money makes the difference in a low-information campaign. I may throw almost all my campaign mail in the recycling, but many other voters learn nothing about an election other than what they see on slick, glossy mailers. (That said, my 100 or so personal letters to voters, many with Batman stamps, got a very good response rate according to my informal exit polling). 

Policy-wise, I don’t think I’d change much about my election platform if I could go back. I probably would’ve hit the walking and writing trail earlier in an effort to sway early voters. But in terms of time, as a full-time employee with two young kids, it would’ve been hard to offer more. Still, lessons learned.

(Left: Former Trustee Phil Weise, who had just ended a 17-year-run on the Board, addresses the audience at the Dec. 17, 2014, SSFUSD meeting.)

While getting elected was the immediate goal, it wasn’t the ultimate one. The ultimate goal is to improve our kids’ education in the South San Francisco Unified School District. I think the spirited, active campaign with policy at the forefront that we just saw was a good step in that direction.

The winners in this election are all dedicated, caring people with experience in reaching out to the population. Maybe they're all a little more toward the social side of the scale and I'm more to the “policy-wonk” side than they are, but I still have faith in them.

And I will still be watching. I’ve redirected my campaign Facebook and Twitter accounts into watchdog status. I will still observe what I see in the District with a critical eye and put my analysis online.

And who knows? My campaign signage and business cards didn’t have an election year on them and I have plenty left of both, ready to be used again. You may see me again in two-to-four years if the current SSFUSD Board doesn’t do sterling work.

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