Schansberg: Lessons from My Congressional Campaign
It seems crazy now, but I thought I could win the race for Indiana’s 9th District seat for U.S. Congress in the May 3rd primary — if our grass roots spread widely; if my advertising choices paid off; if big money and/or big name-recognition didn’t crush; and if God’s hand was in it (in terms of delivering a victory). None of these conditions played out in our favor. In particular, I over-estimated how much money we would raise; under-estimated what others would spend; and didn’t understand that big money was absolutely crucial to win a seat in the U.S. Congress.
We only got 3 percent of the vote. But I’m glad that I thought victory was possible, because this made it much easier to stay motivated! Beyond attending dozens of events, we targeted likely GOP voters in an off-year primary: I made 7,000 calls; we mailed out 5,000 postcards; we sent 35,000 texts; and we had 775,000 banner ads on phones and computers. I’m happy with how smart we ran with the resources we had. I could have done things a bit better, but not much. I’m impressed with how hard we ran. Most important, I’m content with how well we ran, loving the people we came into contact with.
Unfortunately, big money was required to have a shot (three candidates spent at least a half-million dollars, including help from PACs). After that, the quality of the campaign and the perceived quality of candidates were decisive. In local and state races, diligent effort can substitute. But there’s not enough work in the world to make a difference at the federal level.
One implication of this is that governance should be state and local rather than federal, as much as possible. There are other reasons to prefer state/local: it’s constitutional in most cases; it leaves less room for bureaucratic excess; it is centered closer to the problem — and thus, in most cases, more able to form better solutions; and so on. But the connection to money is another concern. If big bucks are required, then we end up with a mixed bag of self-funded, independent candidates — or more often, candidates funded by national interests.
In four counties, I was beat by Bill Thomas — someone who made no apparent effort and ran as a Democrat a few years ago. Then again, Bill beat quite a few of the small-money candidates in certain counties. (He even finished 4th in Harrison County.) We can’t take any of this personally, since we were rarely judged personally. Only a handful of voters really considered my candidacy. In a word, we weren’t disliked; we were rarely considered at all.
This lines up beautifully with a key tenet of “Public Choice” economics: the nearly-universal “rationally-ignorant voter.” Since most voters have so little to offer the process — a vote and maybe a few bucks — there is little incentive to gain knowledge. Instead, voters typically rely on cheap and reasonably-effective signals (e.g., party, campaign spending, yard signs) to choose. As such, most voters simply ignored the six small-money candidates — and weighed the three big-money candidates, based on a policy issue, impressions from ads, etc.
The county political events were generally well-run. Almost all of the local party leaders are volunteering a ton of time/energy and doing a commendable job. As a group, they were passionate, hard-working, competent, engaged, kind, and impressive.
The interest group activity (federal, state, and local) was decidedly more mixed, ranging from professional and balanced to incompetent and corrupt. Their power is another tenet of Public Choice economics: the incentives are well in place for these folks to pursue concentrated benefits through government activity. But it’s also another reason to have even less faith in the political process.
Earned media was of marginal importance. As expected, local radio and TV barely covered the race. Most newspapers have become far less active since I ran in 2006-08. They rarely printed (or reported on) press releases—even those of substance. The Indy Star was active and seemed biased, but probably had even less impact than my efforts.
It was good times, all in all. I was called to run, but I wasn’t called to win. Good news: I can return to my wonderful, purpose-filled, normal life. I won’t run again — unless God bangs on my door, something strange happens, or you know folks who can help me raise at least $250,000.
Since big money is essential in national politics, this doesn’t bode well for the future of the country. I wasn’t optimistic about turning things around with respect to federal spending and the national debt — a dangerous, immoral, and undemocratic bipartisan effort. But with the power of money and “the establishment,” I’m less excited about the ability of Congress in general, and the GOP in particular, to take us where we ought to go. It’s a good thing we have greater things in which we should place our trust.
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.