Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

State Campaign Finance Reports

Summertime is always a challenge for political candidates in New York. They walk up and down Fifth Avenue in one parade after another, spend countless hours attending meetings and hearings and worship services, go to lots of ball games, shake hands with lots of out-of-state tourists. It's a shame that almost no one is paying attention.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, there is an understanding that while candidates will continue to campaign, their focus must be on gathering resources for the crucial weeks leading up to Primary Day and Election Day.

In other words, they are raising money.

A lot of money. A statewide race in a state the size of New York is expensive. Rick Lazio spent about $40 million trying unsuccessfully to defeat Hillary Clinton to be United States Senator from New York. This year's race for governor may not be in the same ballpark, but it is still a costly game.

Under New York state law, statewide candidates have to file reports throughout the campaign disclosing how much money they raise and spend. The most recent filing reveals that the sitting governor, George Pataki, has raised about $12.7 million in contributions over the past six months. The two Democratic candidates did not come close to that figure, but both have raised significant amounts: state comptroller H. Carl McCall raised about $2 million and former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo raised $3.1 million.

Campaign finance filings are always highly anticipated, as much for what they conceal as for what they reveal. All three candidates were quick to point out perceived errors, apparent discrepancies, and the appearance of impropriety in one another's reports.

Some of this is just political maneuvering; a published report of your opponent's finances is bound to have something to pick on, and crying foul is one way to deflect questions about your own numbers, particularly if they are lower (receipts) or higher (expenditures) than you would have liked.

These reports can be complicated, and often require an advanced knowledge of accounting procedures to understand. Public weariness of accounting scandals notwithstanding, campaign finances is always a controversial subject. How much money is raised, who it is coming from, who it is going to, how it is being spent, and most of all, how much is left; all of these are legitimate questions for voters to ask.

So what do these reports really tell us? In New York state, campaign funds are generated by private contributions. Unlike New York City's new campaign finance laws, the state law does not set spending limits or supply public funds. These reports are a measurement of a campaign's progress, promise, propriety, and prospects.

How good of a measurement? And how does that measurement compare to the system we have in New York City? In particular, there are four ways in which the state campaign finance reports can prove useful.

Descriptive. On the surface, the numbers are fairly straightforward. One candidate, Pataki, raised a whole lot more money that the others. The other two candidates both raised millions of dollars apiece, enough to fund an entire campaign in many states, but still far less than the sitting governor. This contrasts sharply to campaigns with publicly financed candidates, who will spend money in similar amounts.

Deductive. Knowing what we do about how candidates raise money, and how much they raise, can give us some reasonable conclusions about the candidates themselves. We can see where a candidate's money is coming from, and map out patterns of giving, and possible conflicts of interest. We can safely guess that a candidate who is having success in reaching contributors is having similar success in gathering supporters as well. We can deduce that a campaign that is raising lots of money is well managed and efficient.

Conversely, we can speculate that a campaign that has failed to reach its fundraising goals may be experiencing other difficulties. Of course all of this is just speculation, but it can be useful. Public financing under city law does require that certain thresholds are met, and knowing that a candidate has qualified for the financing does give us some information. But above that, it provides us with little in the way of additional evidence, positive or negative.

Preventative. Presumably, knowing that financial disclosure will take place is one way to prevent candidates and campaigns from engaging in illegal or unethical conduct in its financial dealings. Sadly, current events in the business world would serve to illustrate the exception to this rule, but on the whole, disclosure does tend to have a cleansing effect. Most campaigns take very seriously their duty to report financial information accurately and on time. While mistakes are made, they are, on the whole, genuine oversights and not deliberate attempts to deceive.

This is true for public financing as well; mandatory financial disclosure is still the best method for keeping campaign politics on the straight and narrow.

Predictive. Campaign finance reports contain lots of numbers, but at the end of the day, only one number really matters for predicting the future success of the campaign: Cash on Hand. This is sometimes described as the candidates' warchest, the money they have managed to hold onto, the money they have left.

Knowing that one candidate has two or even three times more cash on hand than his or her opponents is a valuable piece of information. It would not be accurate to simply say the candidate with the most money will win, but it would be accurate to say the candidate with the most money usually does. There are a number of reasons for this; candidates with more money are typically candidates with a broad base of support and a strong message and a good organization.

But having a lot more money than your opponents, and even more than that, knowing you have a lot more money than your opponents, gives a candidate the ability to reach out to multiple voting blocs with varying messages in every possible medium. Basically, it means instead of having to put all your money in one place, and hope that place is the right place, you can reach out to multiple voting blocks with varying messages in every possible medium. It greatly increases the odds that come Election Day, you will have picked the right combination of message, media, and market.

In last year's mayoral race, the publicly financed candidates all had a similar amount of cash on hand, but one candidate had a warchest that allowed him to reach voters with unprecedented levels of frequency. Mike Bloomberg's victory was unprecedented in many ways, and hardly could be called predictable, but his campaign remains a powerful illustration of the value of knowing what a candidate has left. And of course, no one did know. Public financing doesn't give restrictions to what a candidate can spend of his own money, and doesn't require advance commitments of spending limits.

The race for governor gives voters a chance to evaluate the merits of a campaign finance system very different from the one the city now enforces. In both cases, there are reasons to wish there was a better way.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.


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