The Congressional primary for US House District GA-06 was held yesterday. As expected, the election went to a runoff. I have some thoughts on how the race shook out, having followed it closely since I decided not to run on January 5. My thoughts are my own and don’t represent any party or organization of which I’m a member. I’m also no Nate Silver. But let’s talk about it anyway.
Jon Ossoff, the golden boy of the left who rose from his Congressional staffer background with a blessing from John Lewis and a lot of grassroots fundraising, garnered 48.1% of the vote, at 92,390 votes. Karen Handel, former Secretary of State and perennial statewide candidate, rose to the top of a bruising field of 4 credible Republican contenders to get 19.8% of the vote, at 37,993. The other 16 candidates picked up the remaining 32%, with almost all of that going to Bob Gray, a local businessman, Dan Moody, a former state senator, and Judson Hill, a sitting state senator who vacated his seat to run. Since no one got 50% plus 1, the election goes to a runoff on June 20. What do the rest of the numbers tell us?
I’ll lead with the data which for me was the most disappointing. If we look at the 2016 Presidential Election results in the district, Tom Price, the incumbent, got 201,088 votes. Rodney Stooksbury, a candidate that ran no campaign, had no website, and did not even have a picture, managed to garner 124,917 votes. It’s unsurprising such a candidate didn’t break 40%. What is surprising though is that with all of the energy put into this current race by Democrats, turnout across all 5 Dems added up to a mere 93,911 votes. This is a gap of 31,006 votes. Since we can assume that no one showed up specifically to vote for Stooksbury, that means a quarter of the people that bothered to show up to vote for Hillary Clinton couldn’t be bothered to show up to vote for any Democrat.
I predicted when this election was going on that the district could be won if all the Hillary voters simply showed up again and voted for any Democrat they preferred. With the same proportions, Ossoff would have had a handy victory. So why would so many people stay home?
It’s Hard Out Here for an Independent
There were two candidates who did not make a party declaration: Alexander Hernandez, a local film industry worker, and Andre Pollard, a computer programmer. Between them they managed to garner a whopping 176 votes out of nearly 200,000. If we look at their fundraising totals, we see that Hernandez spent $49.12 per vote and Pollard spent a whopping $95.45 per vote. This sounds bad until we realize that some of the leading candidates had even worse numbers, which I’ll get into in a minute. As I discussed in my article about what I learned in my exploration for a Congressional run, the money is a big deal, because it’s your voice. Hernandez and Pollard weren’t able to lean on a party and para-party infrastructure to speak for them or against their enemies, so they had to rely on their personal relationships. And like most regular people, they didn’t know a lot of rich people, certainly not ones that liked them enough to invest in their victory.
Speaking of which, a political consultant I spoke with during my preparation grilled me and asked, “what’s your path to victory?” He meant, who in the district will support you besides your mom and your neighbor? What demographic segment is looking for you to run and will come out and vote for you, then tell their friends to do the same? What coalition can you build to pull together enough votes to be a credible threat? If you don’t know the answers to those and a bunch of other questions, then don’t bother running; you’re wasting your energy and your own or your friends’ money. You’d be better off finding a candidate that will advance the policy nearest to your heart and volunteering to support them.
Really quickly, I’m not saying “don’t run! Let the two big parties do it!” I heartily encourage anyone who feels the call to run for office. I do think you should run with a goal of winning though; the taste of campaigning that I got showed me that it’s a difficult, thankless grind that isn’t worth doing for your ego or pride alone. So if you are truly neither Democrat-leaning nor Republican-leaning, figure out your path to victory before you run, or figure out how you’re going to make your third party stronger locally.
I mentioned earlier how the independent candidates spent a crazy amount per vote, right? Let’s take a look at how the other candidates spent:
||Spend Per Vote
|Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan
(Thanks to Ballotpedia and the NYT for the data.)
We see from the chart that the most efficient candidate was Karen Handel, at a mere $7.36 per vote, while the least efficient was Ron Slotin, the number two Democrat in the race, at $144.71 per vote. Across the election, a total of $49.61 per vote was spent on average.
What does this measure of efficiency tell us? First, it’s a reminder of how expensive marketing campaigns are. As I’ve said in the past, an election is a marketing campaign for a product that nobody wants. With all of that spending, they were only able to turn out a little under 200,000 of the about 500,000 eligible voters in the district. The turnout also represents a bit less than 60% of the turnout of the presidential election. Voter apathy is still high.
Second, it shows how much name recognition matters. Everyone knows the name Karen Handel, even if they don’t all know what she’s done. She’s been in public life for a long time, and even though her reputation isn’t pristine, she still was able to pull a significant number of votes simply because people knew who she was.
Third, it shows the advantage of incumbency. Judson Hill managed to get almost exactly the same numbers as Dan Moody with about a fifth of the spending. Both served in the State Senate in Georgia, but Hill as an incumbent was able to draw on his voter base in his Senate district to turn out solid numbers without having to spend nearly as much. He still wasn’t able to pull in the rest of the Congressional district, but with better fundraising, the story may have been different.
One additional note: A reader pointed out to me that there was a lot of PAC money spent on attack ads on Ossoff. When considering this, Republican efficiency numbers look a bit less impressive, as any anti-Ossoff ad helped one of the top 4 Republicans a bit. At least $2.2 million was spent on attack ads, and of course Democratic PACs and groups ran general GOTV efforts as well. All that adds up to even more money in an already budget-busting race, with lots more to come now that the core party spending can be unleashed on each side.
Fall in Love, or Fall in Line?
One of my neighbors, a thoughtful and regular voter, but not particularly politically oriented, was a bit disappointed by Ossoff when they saw him speak. They felt he was wooden and inexperienced. They did vote for him in the end, but they weren’t excited about it. I imagine a number of people felt the same way, but decided not to bother to vote.
I read somewhere recently in a thread on a progressive Facebook group a thought which I will paraphrase. The writer noted that Republicans tend to look for a reason to vote for a candidate, while Democrats tend to look for a reason not to vote for a candidate. While I am a firm believer in voting one’s conscience, I do think that Democrats in particular will have to exercise more pragmatism in general or open elections, and save their fire for party primaries where they can express more specific preferences among a slate of candidates who are all likely to advance mostly agreeable policy. The best is the enemy of the good, and waiting for a candidate with the perfect combination of skill to fend off Republican attacks, gravitas, charisma, and policy may leave us all waiting for a long time.
People who want to see more populist progressivism of the Sanders variety will also need to start showing up at their county Democratic Party meetings. I’m now a post holder for my state house district (something like an at-large precinct captain) [Ed. note: post holders’ duties include but are not limited to field operations and they are voting members of the county organization], and the slots were literally all open when I showed up to my first county party meeting in January. That was when I learned there is literally nothing in the way of me advancing an agenda I believe in that fits anywhere within the party’s big tent. People who grouse about corruption or anointed candidates or the like should take their complaints to the county party. You might discover that there’s a job for you to do to fix it.
- You can vote in the runoff even if you didn’t vote in the primary, so get out there June 20.
- If you lean left, don’t grouse over your candidate losing or nitpick Ossoff, just vote for him and then hold him accountable as a constituent.
- If you lean right, take a look at Handel’s willingness to be independent of Trump, the way that any member of Congress should exercise some independence from the Executive. Make sure she’s putting your district and not the party or the whims of the President first.
- Regardless, figure out who among your friends didn’t vote. Ask them why. Don’t browbeat them, but try to figure out what would engage them. We get this ridiculous spending under control by caring enough to give some thought and effort to the one thing that can’t be bought — our votes.