It was just over eight years ago that I decided to ruin a perfectly good summer by running for the Washington State Legislature. Yes, for a brief period, I was a politician. I never got used to the idea even though for the previous decade I had decided that I would run for office at some point in the future.
My opportunity came in 2002 when, after a redistricting shuffle, a seat came open in my district. I jumped into the race. What I learned from the experience wasn’t earth-shattering—I already knew most of it from having been a campaign worker—but it bears repeating as we careen through another political season, and as we consider the politics of sustainability.
Here’s how my election turned out:
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I lost. But let’s look at the math for a minute. I finished second in the primary with 876 votes less than the winner of the Democratic primary, now State Representative Zack Hudgins. Then take a look at the percentages. Hudgins bested me by more than seven percentage points in a field of five Democratic candidates—that is a pretty big win. But now consider the numbers at the top, ballots cast and registered voters. There were, at that time, 67,972 registered voters in the 11th Legislative District, yet only 18.39 percent of them showed up on Election Day for a total of just 12,500 ballots cast. Everyone else stayed home (there was still ballot-box voting then) or didn’t bother to mail in an absentee.
To understand the dynamics of such a small race one has to realize that we were all going after so-called “perfect voters” in the district, people who had voted in every one of the last four elections. With such a small pool of voters, we essentially knew who those 12,500 people were. The task was to reach them as many times as possible, either in person on their doorstep, over the phone, or through mail. All of us were Democrats, virtually ideologically indistinguishable (except for my support of a graduated income tax). We all mouthed the same words (and believed them!) about health care and fairness and supporting the working families in our district. So what made the difference?
All elections—even tiny contest like this—are ultimately won with money. Because we were virtually indistinguishable, and that year there was no voters guide, we battled for endorsements (I got the Seattle Times of all things) and support from individual voters. It was all about outreach, and what made outreach possible was money. Hudgins raised the most, I raised the second most, and the results tended to reflect that pattern. At the end of the day, Hudgins was able to reach people more often than I could.
Now, Hudgins may have been better for the job than those of us he beat. And on the issues I care about Hudgins has done a great job, earning a high score from the Washington Conservation Voters for fighting off “attacks from various utility and business interests and help kill any effort to seriously weaken [Initiative 937].” But the simple fact is that without the money to get name recognition—often reinforced by an expensive piece of mail that voters may only see as they are dropping it into the recycling bin—any candidacy will languish. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or committed you might be to this cause or that; if you can’t get people to remember your name, you will lose. It’s that simple. You can call it a battle of political life and death on the Serengeti of politics, taking place across dozens of legislative districts in the region.
So in order to understand why things turn out the way they do in politics, one need look no further than the financial reports that emerge from political races. Studies have consistently found that whoever raises money wins. And those who give money to candidates have a reasonable expectation that the money they give a candidate will yield positive results when a vote or decision is made. It only makes sense.
I’m not trying to be amoral here by describing the system we have. I don’t necessarily endorse the system; I’m just saying that it is what it is. And I don’t believe it is very complicated or nuanced. Raising money, and putting it into the political system matters—and it influences policy outcomes. (See this Economist article for a view on the Citizens United decision and its effects on money and campaigns at the federal level).
Now sometimes these ironclad rules of money don’t matter. Take the candidacy of one Michael McGinn, who was elected Mayor of the City of Seattle after being out spent by as much as eight to one. People and ideas can make a difference in political campaigns. But generally those cases are outliers, the exception not the rule. (I recommend a series at Five Thirty Eight on the accuracy of polling as a predictor of campaign outcomes if you are interested in whether polls can be wrong).
Some of us may not like that. We would prefer to win our political fights because we’re right. Being right matters, of course and I think it’s important to always get the facts right. Yet, while being right may be necessary for a principled political victory, it is hardly sufficient.
All this matters because if we are going to close the Sustainability Gap—the chasm between what politicians say and what they do on sustainability issues—we need to heed the basic rules of our system, as flawed as it is. There are three things at work here. One, if we allow our candidates to take our money for granted, they may take us for granted. Two, great candidates can’t win without money. And third, we need to support elected leaders who take the right, but potentially unpopular stand, on issues related to sustainability.
Right now, our political system is riven with Sustainability Gaps, and it’s not delivering the results we want. But ther
e’s good news too: we know how politics and elected officials work—regardless or how pure or impure their motives. If we are trying to change the existing system, we would do well to master it.