IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What's the value of a vote

Money isn't everything in politics, but it sure is important. In 2006, some candidates spent their campaign cash prudently, converting each dollar raised into a vote cast in his or her favor. Others threw down as much money as possible. So which candidates got the most bang for their buck?   By Patrick Ottenhoff, National Journal
/ Source: National Journal

Money isn't everything in politics, but it sure is important. In 2006, some candidates spent their campaign cash prudently, converting each dollar raised into a vote cast in his or her favor. Others, like most of the self-funders, threw down as much money as possible to win over voters.

By taking the total disbursements of each candidate, according the Federal Election Commission, and dividing each sum by the amount of votes he or she received, one can determine how much money each candidate spent per vote.

These numbers do not take into account the millions of dollars per race spent by outside interest groups, but they provide a good picture of how much each candidate was willing -- or able -- to dish out to compete in his or her district.

Spending per vote in Senate races
Vermont Republican Richard Tarrant spent by far the most money on each vote, while fellow self-funders Pete Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican, and Ned Lamont, a Connecticut Democrat, placed second and third, respectively.

Conversely, California Republican Dick Mountjoy barely shelled out $200,000 in the vote-rich Golden State, while Robert Gerald Lorge, a Wisconsin Republican, and Erik Fleming, a Mississippi Democrat, also got a good bargain.

But it's important to look at money spent in competitive races, not throwaway campaigns such as Mountjoy's. In the 15 most competitive Senate races, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Joe Lieberman, I/D-Conn., were the biggest spenders among eventual winners, followed by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who shelled out big money per vote in sparsely populated Montana.

Cable executive Lamont spent the most per vote of any loser in a competitive race, with former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., placing second. In third was fellow incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee, who faced an expensive Rhode Island market with relatively few voters.

Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) got the most bang for their buck of any winner, both spending a relatively modest $11 million in their vote-rich battleground states.

And of the losers, Michigan Republican Mike Bouchard stretched his wallet the furthest, while Republican Tom Kean Jr., of heavily populated New Jersey tied with Democrat Jack Carter of fast-growing Nevada for second.

Spending per vote in House races
In the 40 most competitive House races, Rep. Vern Buchanan helped make Tampa Bay the most saturated media market nationwide, spending nearly $70 per vote for his slim victory in Florida's 13th District. Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., was second, while Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, placed third, capitalizing on strong fund-raising to beat a write-in candidate in his suburban Houston district. 

Bean's opponent, Republican self-funder David McSweeney, poured his bank account out in Ill.-08, spending the most per vote of any House loser. Former Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., tied for second with Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a national Democratic favorite and a fund-raising powerhouse.

Conversely, Democratic Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.-01), Dave Loebsack (Iowa-02) and Nancy Boyda (Kan.-02) spent only a few dollars per vote, winning in districts that national Democratic fund-raisers considered long shots.

Michigan Democrats Sharon Renier and Nancy Skinner spent the least of any loser, in what were surprisingly competitive races, with low-key former Republican Rep. Jim Leach, Iowa-02, placing third.

In fact, Iowa-02 can be described as one of the most lackadaisical House races in the country, with both candidates -- a professor and a congressman known for measured politics -- spending $5 or less per vote in this rural district. The N.H.-01 race was also a relatively cheap campaign, with both candidates spending lightly in an expensive New England market.

On the other hand, the campaigns in Illinois' 8th District and Washington's 8th District were fully charged, free-spending affairs. The Ill.-08 race featured an incumbent Democrat with support from Big Business entities against an investment banker who spent heavily in both the general and in the six-way GOP primary. The Fla.-22 battle was between two well-known candidates in a Palm Beach district flush with donors. 

Major self-funders
A number of wealthy businessmen tested their luck in politics in 2006, including a computer equipment executive (Tarrant), an investment banker (McSweeney), the former Ameritrade COO (Ricketts), a cable executive (Lamont), a commercial real estate magnate (Jim Pederson, D-Ariz.) and an insurance baron (Mike McGavick, R-Wash.).

Financial reports showed that these candidates contributed significant sums to their campaigns, which each of them lost, including $17 million by Lamont, $12 million by Ricketts in the Nebraska Senate race, $11 million by Pederson in the Arizona Senate race and $7 million by Tarrant.

Big bucks in cheap markets
Some campaigns blame big spending on expensive markets. But it's tougher for other campaigns to explain the relatively high spending per votes in rural or inexpensive media markets. Tarrant threw down significant money in the Green Mountain State, while his opponent, Independent senator and self-described enemy of "Big Money" Bernie Sanders, also spent liberally.

And both Tester and Burns coughed up big bucks in Big Sky Country.

In the House, GOP incumbent Robin Hayes spent heavily in a district that encompasses Kannapolis, N.C., the hometown of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt. And the candidates in Georgia's 12th District spent big dollars in towns like Statesboro and the old ramblin' grounds of the Allman Brothers Band.

Some of these numbers are high, but in 2004's South Dakota Senate battle, Republican challenger John Thune spent $74 per vote while then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D) spent more than $100 per vote, suggesting that in presidential election years, candidates are prone to upping the ante higher than in off years. In 2008, campaign expenditures will likely be even greater.

Graphics by Vincent Barranco.