RALEIGH — Was the 2014 Senate race between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican victor Thom Tillis really the most expensive race in North Carolina history, or in the country’s entire election cycle last year?
No. But the claim has been endlessly repeated, particularly by liberals seeking to denounce the campaign-finance system, explain away the inconvenient fact of higher voter turnout among black North Carolinians last year, or both.
What’s interesting is that many of these same left-wing politicians and commentators insist that North Carolina’s recent budget history can only be accurately assessed after adjusting for inflation and population growth. They’re right about that, by the way, although they sometimes press their point too far.
Even relatively low rates of inflation do reduce the value of money, meaning that a million dollars in 2014 didn’t buy as much as a million dollars did in 2004. And the effects of spending a million dollars to provide, say, a thousand people with government services is quite different from spending that same million on two thousand people. (The point gets pressed too far, however, when analysts ignore economies of scale and assume that marginal costs are equivalent to average costs.)
The same principle applies to analyzing campaign spending. A dollar spent on TV ads, events, or get-out-the-vote efforts in 2014 was less valuable than a dollar spent on those functions a generation or two ago — even if one were to grant that today’s spending, guided by better technology and datasets, can be deployed more efficiently. Similarly, since most campaigns spend most of their money on things that scale to the size of the potential electorate, it would be meaningless to compare total expenditures on a California race to those on a Rhode Island race. Candidates in California have to reach many more voters.
Although no comparison is free from quirks or biases, the best available one is to compare inflation-adjusted, per-voter expenditures across times and jurisdictions. By that measure, the Tillis-Hagan race was hardly the most expensive in North Carolina history, or the most expensive in the 2014 cycle.
Carolina Journal reporter Barry Smith ran the numbers last fall. Including estimated independent expenditures, the Tillis-Hagan race cost just a bit over $16 per voter. The 1984 slugfest between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt cost more than $20 per voter. Since independent expenditures weren’t as carefully reported and archived in the past (they mostly consisted of spending by parties and interest groups), they aren’t included in the totals before 2014 — meaning that Helms-Hunt cost even more than the CJ analysis suggests.
Nationwide, a Brookings Institution study found that when measured per voter, North Carolina’s race ranked eighth in total cost last year, not first. The most expensive races were in Alaska ($121 per voter), New Hampshire ($50 per voter), and Iowa ($39 per voter), all several times more expensive than the Tillis-Hagan contest.
With regard to gubernatorial races in North Carolina, by the way, the 1980s also produced the most expensive races. When Republican congressman Jim Martin was elected governor in 1984 in his race against Democratic Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, the two campaigns spent a combined $6 per voter. When Martin then ran for re-election in 1988 against Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan, the race was even costlier at $7.41 per voter. By comparison, Pat McCrory’s two races were much less expensive: $4.33 per voter when he lost to Bev Perdue in 2008 and $2.41 when he defeated Walter Dalton in 2012.
This is not a defense of the current campaign-finance system. While I strongly support the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United — as should anyone who believes in the basic protections of free speech afforded by the First Amendment — other decisions and laws have made the system overly complicated and opaque. Donors ought to be free and encouraged to give their money directly to candidates or political parties, rather than to independent groups.
My purpose here is simply to correct the record. Tillis-Hagan was not the most expensive race in North Carolina history or in the nation last year. Not even close.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.