Does election cash equal a win? Not necessarily, but it helps!

Name recognition is the real name of the game, and money is not the only way to get it.
6 min. read
Candi CdeBaca teaches first-time voter MaLinda Medina how to cast a ballot as she canvasses in Five Points on election day, June 4, 2019.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Fundraising is already well underway for Denver's municipal election this spring. It's early, but we can already see that City Council's At-Large and District 9 races will be hot contests. Money isn't everything - in life or in political races - but we wanted to know if fundraising is any kind of predictor for who might gain (or keep) power in 2023.

Generally speaking: in Denver, money talks.

In 15 of 20 City Council races held in 2015 and 2019, candidates who raised the most money also won seats. Still, nothing is that straightforward, and there are larger things at play that could undermine that trend.

Broadly speaking, does cash equal votes?

"The answer would be no," Sara Chatfield, an assistant professor at the University of Denver, told us.

While she said there is a "correlation" between funding and election wins, it's more nuanced than that.

"More generally, one of the things you want to look at is where people are getting their money from," she said.

If candidates have a lot of donations from people in the districts where they're running, that may be an indicator of political power, since those donors are also likely to be voters. If candidates' purses are bulging because they're self-funded, or because they've gotten help from people outside the cities or states where they're pursuing seats, cashflow can be less of a bellwether.

Michael Bloomberg, who famously funded his own presidential campaign, is her "favorite example" of a fat wallet falling flat.

At the moment, most of the money flooding Denver's races are from people in Denver, though we'll probably see more outside influence as we get closer to election day.

Chatfield also told us money matters differently depending on the type of race. In super-local contests, like a City Council seat, it's relatively easy to go knock doors and reach a significant proportion of voters. That's impossible for a statewide candidate, like a U.S. Senate-hopeful, who will need funding to reach many more people across a large geography.

This is really all about name recognition, but you still need funds to get on the board.

District 9 Council member Candi CdeBaca, who unseated a better-funded incumbent in 2019, responded on Twitter to our first story about money already flowing into her race.

"If we taught the city anything in 2019," she wrote, "it WILL NOT be money that wins these races."

CdeBaca, a community activist who knocked doors for a year to win over voters, raised less than half of her opponent, Albus Brooks. When we called to talk about this further, she offered some more nuance. While she thinks there's a limit to what cash can do for a campaign, you still need some.

"There is legitimately a need for money," she said. "There's a threshold that you have to reach to be able to communicate with your voters, because that's all that money really is."

Basically, she said you can't just buy an election, but you need some funding so people know that you're running - and what you stand for. To that end, she said Denver's new Fair Elections Fund, which offers nine-to-one matching of city funds to small donations, is a step towards a more level playing field. She said it will help "eliminate the question of who is viable."

Ean Thomas Tafoya, an environmental activist who lost to Brooks for District 9's seat in 2015 and is currently running for mayor, said he's already looking forward to Fair Elections Fund support this time around. Next quarter, he told us, he'll reach the 250 qualifying contributors needed to unlock matching funds in the mayor's race (City Council candidates just need 100).

More than outreach, which he said he's already doing, Tafoya said that money will help him get an office and some staffers to keep the ball moving.

"The system is built to get you on a roll. So once you unlock it, you do have that money to get that basic infrastructure," he said.

For a grassroots-style campaigner who says he'll reject big corporate donations, that stability will help him focus on his message. Ideas are harder to buy.

Increasingly, fundraising is not the only way to get the popularity candidates need to win.

Back in 2015, Liz Adams set out to become District 6's City Council representative. While she raised 30 percent more than her opponent, Paul Kashmann, she said she just couldn't keep up with his existing traction in the community. Kashmann was editor of the Washington Park Profile, a local paper that gave him a platform before his run for office.

"The money piece was about me getting name recognition, and I was already behind the eight ball," she told us. "Money doesn't vote. We know that, and I think we're seeing that more and more."

In particular, Adams said she ran a race in a time before social media was so engrained in political (and everyday) life. If that election took place a few years later, she wondered if she'd have a different opportunity to reach people.

While Chatfield doesn't specialize in the internet's impact on politics, she did say access to cheap platforms like Twitter isn't enough by itself.

"It is still a skill to be able to go viral and have a following on social media," she said. "Yes, posting a tweet is free, but that doesn't mean it's easy."

And though deft use of the internet can help candidates with less cashflow connect with voters, it can also elevate conspiracy theories and racist dogwhistles in political discourse.

CdeBaca said she believes Denverites are paying more attention to local issues than they used to. Their engagement and interest, she said, helped her win the first time around. She's hoping her work so far in office will keep her there next year.

"Money in campaigns is a thing because, typically, this system relies on us being ignorant," she said. "If there's a way for us to overcome money in elections, it's though education, it's through awareness of what's going on in our city."

Still, name recognition and tuned-in constituents can cut both ways. In the five cases when top-funded candidates lost elections in 2019 and 2015, four were incumbents whose voters decided not to renew their lease on power.

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