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Becoming mayor is expensive. Just ask Terry Gillen. She dropped out of the race earlier this month because she didn’t think she could raise enough money. To be mayor you must spend millions of dollars — and that’s either money you already had, or that your campaign received by soliciting contributions. The latter is tricky in Philadelphia because candidates for city office are limited by contribution caps set at $2,900 for individuals and $11,500 for organizations.
How much money do mayoral candidates usually spend? Who do they get it from? And where on Earth does all that money go? Billy Penn answers in this primer on campaign cash.
Ok how much money are we talking about? What’s the usual dollar figure attached to a Philly Democratic mayoral primary?
Candidates usually spend all the money they receive… or spend too much and end up in debt. Here’s a breakdown of money spent in the last three Democratic primaries.
2007: $24 million
1999: $15 million
1991: $5 million (Inquirer)
Has Philadelphia tried anything to limit out of control spending?
Sure — that cap mentioned above. It was enacted in 2003 and came after a 1999 mayoral election in which individual contributors were giving candidates up to $150,000. People feared the mayor could be beholden to certain individuals or businesses if he or she received so much money from them. Back then, Philadelphia was also the rare big city in the United States that didn’t have contribution limits. The 2007 election was the first major election to take place with limits (which were $2,500 and $10,000 at the time).
It doesn’t really seem like the cap limited contributions or spending in 2007?
No it didn’t. But this is largely because of Tom Knox. He entered the race as a relatively unknown rich guy. And as a rich guy, he flooded the race with his own money, raising and spending $12 million. The other four candidates combined to spend $12 million. If not for Knox, campaign spending probably would have been down from or equal to 1999.
Rich people can contribute as much money to their campaign as they want?
Oh yeah. As long as it’s their own money. And if a candidate contributes $250,000 or more of his or her own money in a race then the contribution limits get doubled, like they have in the Ori Feibush-Kenyatta Johnson Council race for the 2nd District. The limits were also doubled in the 2007 mayoral race because of Knox.
Wow, $24 million, $15 million, that seems like a lot of money. Is it?
Depends. In 1999, when talk of setting contributions limits was picking up, political analysts were pointing out that Philadelphia’s mayoral primary expenditures were much greater than even U.S. Senate races. Back then, the average U.S. senate race featured $4 million in spending — and that was for the whole race, not just the primary.
But mayor of Philadelphia is a big deal. The amount spent in 2007 by five candidates isn’t that outrageous compared to the New York City mayor’s race. For the Democratic primary in a 2013 race that featured no incumbent, five NYC Democrats spent over $27 million.
Does money spent correlate with winning?
Not entirely, but it certainly helps. Let’s go back to that 2007 race. Knox went from a relative unknown to second place by spending a ton of money, $12 million total and $3.5 million just in the last few weeks. Another unknown, Marty Weinberg, came within about 5,000 votes of beating John Street in 1999, because he spent the most. Congressman Chakah Fattah went from a front-runner in that race, largely because he struggled to raise money within the limits and thus spend money, to fourth place.
In 1991, winner Ed Rendell spent about $1.9 million in the mayoral primary, more than any other candidate. Street was the second-biggest spender in the 1999 primary at $3.2 million, as was Michael Nutter in 2007, at $4.2 million.
So you can’t quite buy an election, but you can come close. And if you want to win, even if you’re a well-known political figure, you better spend as much or more than everyone else.
Aside from donating your own money, is there any other way you could receive a contribution of greater than $2,900 or $11,500?
Nope. Unless you’re not running for mayor yet.
What do you mean?
In Philadelphia, you’re not considered an official candidate until you’ve filed nomination papers or publicly announced. Until then, the rules don’t apply.
Is it like that everywhere?
No. The state has a stricter definition of a candidate for office. Pennsylvania says you become a candidate whenever you receive a contribution given for the purpose of running for any state office.
Then can candidates get around campaign finance limits, legally, before they are “candidates?”
Yup. One way is by doing what state Sen. Tony Williams has done just recently. Isaiah Thompson of the Philly Voice reported Williams spent over $40,000 on consultants as part of an “exploratory” phase. The money used came from contributions larger than the $11,500 and $2,900 limits. But he was able to raise that money from his senate position because he hadn’t officially declared for mayor. Williams also spent the money before his declaration as an official mayoral candidate. Had he held onto the money after declaring, he could only have used $11,500 of it if the money came from an organization or $2,900 from an individual. Receive money in large chunks while you’re exploring a run and then spend it before you declare and you’re OK.
Thompson also reported that Williams has around $350,000 in money from his senate campaigns that will fit within the cap limits and he’ll be able to spend on the mayor’s race.
Will this “war chest” give Williams a major advantage?
Money always helps, but $350,000 isn’t as much as you’d think. In 2007, Fattah employed a similar strategy of using an exploratory committee and when he declared had over $500,000 in his congressional account. In 1999, Street waited until February to formally announce his intentions to run for mayor, and he had a war chest of $2 million, far more than Williams. Street, of course, won the race. Fattah went from front-runner to fourth place.
Who gives the money?
All kinds of different people and organizations. Some of the organizations who gave to Nutter in 2007 included the massive law firm Pepper Hamilton and the Philadelphia Eagles. And though most of the people who contribute money to Philadelphia mayoral candidates live in the area, they don’t have to. Nutter got money in 2007 from people who live in Fort Worth, Texas, and Beverly Hills, Calif.
For Nutter, the bigger contributors were the organizations. They were more likely to give contributions in the thousands of dollars, whereas individual people’s contributions were more likely in the hundreds.
What about these things called independent expenditures, the Super PACs?
So, candidates can sort of get more than the capped contributions, as long as a group isn’t technically coordinating with them. Unions sometimes support a candidate independently and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to get someone elected. Last year, for instance, unions formed a group called Building A Better Pennsylvania that spent over $350,000 to support U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle.
How does all the money get used, anyway?
Nutter’s final disclosure of his political contributions and expenditures from the 2007 mayoral race gives some insight into how a successful candidate spends in an election. Here are approximate sums of some of the biggest expenditures, which totaled $1.7 million for those final few weeks:
-Media (TV/radio ads): $1 million
Candidates also spend a lot on street money. Nutter paid several thousand dollars to city Democratic Committees that might have distributed the funds as street money to get out the vote. Inquirer reporter Tom Ferrick Jr. estimated $1 million was “easily” spent on street money by the five candidates in the 2007 mayoral race.
But it’s TV ads that really make the difference. In 1999, political no-name Marty Weinberg nearly toppled John Street in the Democratic primary on the strength of TV ads. He spent more than any other candidate in the race, $5.7 million, and nearly $2 million of that was spent on TV in the early months of 1999. By getting on TV before everyone else, he gained an advantage.
But it’s 2015. TV ads seem a little quaint, don’t they?
Yeah, but remember pretty much nobody under the age of 30 votes, so voting is kind of quaint here, too. David Thornburgh, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said TV likely reigns supreme in Philadelphia for a couple of reasons. He said Philadelphia largely has a traditional electorate that still watches TV. Secondly, he said campaigns in general don’t like to risk innovation. TV is a safe way to get your name out to prospective voters.
“You only get one chance,” Thornburgh said. “Just as they say generals are often fighting the last war, there’s a conservatism in campaigns that makes it difficult to adopt new technologies or new ways of strategies and tactics.”
Has anyone earned a lot of contributions or spent a lot so far?
We’ll know next Monday when candidates have to file their first finance reports (they’ll next file in May). But it doesn’t seem like the candidates have raised or spent much money so far, given the lack of TV commercials or really any type of promotional tools. Lynne Abraham did make this online commercial hailing her as the animal-loving candidate. So there’s that.