SOLOMON: Dollars Per Vote

After California's primary election on June 2, news outlets across the country were quick to provide a comforting moral to the story. As National Public Radio reported the next day: "Big money was a big loser."The winner of the Democratic nomination for governor, career politician Gray Davis, spent "only" $12 million. He defeated a pair of wealthy rivals, business magnate Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman, who financed their own campaigns -- running up a combined tab of approximately $60 million.Although it was the most expensive election in any state's history, the media spin was reassuring about the results. Standards have sunk so low that the triumph of a candidate's $12 million campaign is supposed to be a victory for the little guy.We're used to seeing rich individuals and corporations give large amounts of money to winning candidates. But a lot of Americans are apt to take offense when a wealthy person tries to cut out the middleman and gain an elected position directly. We seem to prefer leasing arrangements rather than outright purchases of public office.By now, with election-year inflation so rampant, our eyes often glaze over at the sight of huge campaign expenditures. The news coverage of election returns might have more meaning if it included a tabulation we rarely see: the cost of each vote."Dollars Per Vote" could put various campaigns into clearer focus. We ought to know how much the candidates spent for every vote they received.After a fruitless search for news about Dollars Per Vote in the national election of autumn 1996, I did the math myself.Bill Clinton's campaign spent $61.8 million of taxpayer money to win 45.6 million votes -- so his Dollars Per Vote total was $1.36. Meanwhile, Bob Dole adhered to the same spending limit and got 37.9 million votes -- for a "DPV" of $1.63.In 1996, billionaire Ross Perot accepted federal funds with a ceiling of $29 million and captured just under 8 million votes. Perot's DPV: $3.67.At the same time, the man who finished fourth in the presidential balloting, Ralph Nader, opted to cap his campaign expenditures at $5,000 and ended up with 581,000 votes. Nader's DPV: $0.01.In the recent California primary, the Dollars Per Vote again went unreported. But the DPV amounts were easy to calculate.With nearly all the ballots counted in California's "open primary," the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Gray Davis -- the guy who had spent a mere $12 million -- received 1,885,315 votes. His DPV: $6.36.In second place, former Northwest Airlines tycoon Checchi -- after bankrolling a campaign of close to $40 million -- wound up with 682,479 votes. His DPV was a whopping $58.61.Harman, whose family wealth enabled her to spend a reported $20 million, came in third with 664,005 votes. Her DPV: $30.12.Compare those Dollars Per Vote figures with data on the top vote-getter for governor who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. The campaign for the Green Party nominee, Dan Hamburg, spent about $15,000 statewide and ended up with 82,857 votes. Hamburg's DPV: $0.18.From coast to coast, it has become fashionable to decry the effects of money on politics. Many of us -- journalists included -- roll our eyes as incumbents in Washington refuse to take any serious action for campaign finance reform. But some media owners have a direct stake in runaway campaign spending.Last spring, Californians watched with dismay as the contrast between docile news reporting and robust advertising grew even more extreme. Television stations gave very low priority to examining important issues -- but filled the airwaves with commercials for candidates.Around the nation, candidates are boosting profit margins for radio and TV stations. While campaign news coverage is rarely better than mediocre, broadcast time for political ads is selling at a premium. And the entire money-mad process is likely to keep escalating between now and Election Day.All in all, quite a loss for "big money."


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