Follow the money: Coverage for the next campaign | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Follow the money: Coverage for the next campaign

Uploaded: Nov 9, 2014

This is the first of a potential series of discussions about what news coverage residents would find useful about future local elections. Now is the time to have such a discussion because memories are still fresh, and because waiting until the next campaign is ramping up would result in many comments being attacked as partisanship for candidates in that election.

Some of this discussion might influence the Weekly's news coverage, but some of it might inspire some citizen journalism if they can see that there is enough of an audience to be worth the effort.

Background: The Weekly has very limited resources for covering the election (my impression?I am not authorized to speak for them): It is a big story, but hardly the only story (to get a sense, look at back issues and online stories). Recognize that I, and the other bloggers, are not on the staff of the Weekly?we are given space on the website in the hope that we draw eyeballs to their ads. We write for Palo Alto Online because it provides us with eyeballs that we wouldn't get elsewhere.

Some of this material I would have liked to have presented in this blog during the campaign, but I had self-imposed restrictions because I was a principal in a Council campaign (Lydia Kou's). Other material didn't make the cut when I selected what I guessed would be most interesting to the likely audience.

The news coverage of the financial filings(foot#1) followed the conventional pattern?one taught in journalism school? However, this approach omits and obscures what is instructive about the status of the campaigns.

The first thing I look at is the donations: How much was raised and how. Asking for donations is very hard for most people, and not wanting to do this is a top reason given by potential candidates in deciding not to run. At campaign events, it is routine to have someone other than the candidate encouraging the audience to donate. In a local election such as City Council or School Board, there are several categories of contributors: special interests (developers and their allies, unions?), single-issue activists, ?, ordinary residents. The number of ordinary residents who donate is important to me because those tend to be the hardest to get, and tend to demonstrate the candidate's connection to the community and ordinary residents' confidence in the candidate's overall ability to serve. Because of space limitations, news articles tend to focus on a few prominent donors and omit this highly instructive aspect of the donor pool.

The pattern of donations is also indicative of who a candidate is talking to. Is it a campaign reaching out to the broader community? One focused on activists, special interests, insiders?? Or?

The news articles on this year's Council contest obscured the donor summaries by treating loans by the candidate to his own campaign as funds raised. Such loans are a reasonable way to cover expenses in the earliest stages of a campaign (August) before the fund-raising ramps up (September). However, the news articles reported this campaign's loans without highlighting how far outside normal patterns they were for this type of election. It would have been interesting to hear the candidates' rationales for those loans (I don't know what the reporters asked of the candidates for the articles).

For campaign watchers/analysts, there are two basic periods for the financial disclosure documents: The first goes through the end of September and the second covers the first half of October (the next closes after the election). Because so many use Vote-by-Mail ballots, which are sent out in early October, the campaign is very heavily front-loaded, and so too is the fund-raising. You should see most of the fund-raising in that first set of disclosures. The second set of disclosures includes the tail-end of this, but the remainder can be suggestive about the state of the various campaigns.

News articles tend to report large donations, but often with inadequate context. For example, during the second reporting period in the recent election, one candidate raised $10.5K from three donors in New Jersey and Florida (in the news article), and another $2.5K from a donor in Los Altos. That this was $13K of the $16.5K raised?80%?was obscured by the article including a $25K loan in the total, pushing the percentage down to 30% (percentages were not in the news article, but invited for those of us who automatically make such calculations when we see numbers).

The other part of the financial disclosure filings is the expenditures and cash-on-hand. For people running opposing campaigns, this can provide some guesses about the budgets. But for reporters and the electorate, a compare-and-contrast to competing campaigns and to campaigns in prior elections can provide some guesses and provoke questions to be asked of the campaigns.

The escalating costs of campaigns should also be receiving news coverage. In the past, $20-25,000 would allow a campaign to effectively reach the electorate, and on several occasions there were voluntary spending caps (recollection: $25K). In the mid-2000s there started to be much more expensive campaigns (recollection: 2005). Of the eight significant campaigns in the current Council contest, I project five to each have spent $20-30K for their whole campaign (final filings not yet available), with the other three having spent $31K, $45K and $64K as of the mid-October filing.

Absent a (voluntary) spending cap, there is a strong incentive to spend more on advertising (the biggest expense) to avoid yours from being swamped by a bigger spending opponent. This push to more expensive campaigns was accelerated by the 2009 decision to switch Council elections from odd years to even years (after the City changed its election schedule, the School District was essentially forced to follow suit). Now local candidates not only had to break through the advertising of other local candidates, but also state and federal candidates and state propositions.
Aside: The passage of Measure D, reducing Council size from 9 to 7, is expected by many to make campaigns during years when there are 3 seats even more expensive and combative.

This Council campaign also saw a very troubling development: a purported Independent Expenditure Committee named Palo Altans for Good Government (see my blog entry A reprehensible political ad). In one week, this group spent $7270 (on newspaper ads), that is, one-third of the lower level for what used to be the total for an effective campaign. Future candidates would be wise to substantially increase their budgets to be prepared for such.

If you want to look at the raw data for the City Council elections, it is available from the City Clerk's website.(foot#2)

I have made available a spreadsheet created for the campaign I was working on. There is similar data for the School Board contest and if someone with experience working with it could post details as a comment, it would be appreciated.

----Measure D----
The supporters of Measure D (to reduce Council size from 9 to 7) ran a substantial amount of advertising, both online and in print (Example: Palo Alto Weekly, issue of 31 October 2014, top half of page 11). The ads do not carry the "Paid for by" information that I understand is required by state law, nor could I find any sponsor or financial disclosure information (I checked with the City Clerk, but haven't heard back yet). Given the amount of ads I saw, it is unlikely that spending was less than the $1000 threshold for reporting. ++Update 11/10/2014: Filings have just been submitted: Expenditures of $11,880.

Although the larger print ads provided a long list of people endorsing the Measure, the smaller online ads had no disclosure info. Legal issues aside, is the community comfortable with this being good-enough, or is this something that people think should have gotten reported on? (foot#3)

----"Palo Altans for Good Government"----
As noted above, this group made substantial expenditures during the final full week of the campaign?$7270?which may be more than that of several of the major candidates in that period. Although the group did file financial disclosures on its donations and expenditures, I could not find a registration for the group, which I have been told is legally required.

The bigger question for me is why the purported "independence" of this group didn't receive public scrutiny during the campaign: 4 of the 17 listed supporters were "Honorary Co-chairs" of the candidates being endorsed by the ads, and other supporters were closely linked to the campaigns and candidates (details in a footnote in my blog A reprehensible political ad). Although the disclosure is "Not authorized by a candidate or committee controlled by a candidate. No candidate was consulted.", my understanding is that the legal standard is much higher, prohibiting coordination with/by the campaign staff of the candidate(s) (California Fair Political Practices Commission, "What is an independent expenditure"). At the federal level, someone working on an independent committee has to sever all ties to the campaign and is forbidden to communicate with them about any matters related to the campaign (many avoid all communications just to be safe).

Note: The laws about independent expenditure committees exist for good reason. Claims that such committees are equivalent to other organizations will be deleted unless you provide fact-based arguments to support your contention (There will be some who equate what they find convenient to believe with being a fact, but that doesn't pass muster here). Some of the organizations that made endorsements and/or donations to candidates during the campaign had overlaps between their membership and the campaign committees (and even the candidates themselves). These overlaps were permissible (legal) and not unexpected, although different endorsing organizations have different rules about separation from the candidates (debate about the appropriateness of those rules is off-topic here?it is a matter between the membership and leadership of those organizations). These organizations included the local Democratic Party and various of its sub-organizations, Sierra Club, and PASZ.

----Mystery Poll----
What very little is known about "the mystery poll" has already been well covered in news articles ( Mystery poll queries residents on City Council race, October 01)?we don't need redundant speculation. Consequently, I am declaring it off-topic.

This is an opportunity to discuss how the various local campaigns?Council, School Board, Measures?might have been better covered in service to the voters. Examples from the recent campaigns may be used as illustrations of a broader point, but re-fighting the election will not be allowed.

Think about what you discovered by chance, or thought was important that you found that others didn't know. And for people who have worked on campaigns, add what you have learned to look for.

Assume that there will be little change in how newspapers cover elections, so suggestions for additional information (such as the spreadsheet provided above) are likely going to have to be created and managed by a separate entity (what and how?).

---- Footnotes ----

1. News articles from Palo Alto Online/Weekly:
Palo Alto City Council challengers see influx of cash: Lydia Kou, A.C. Johnston lead the way in campaign contributions, October 7
Scharff beefs up campaign chest for final stretch: Incumbent leads crowded field in Palo Alto council race, Monday October 27

2. If you want to look at the details of the contributions and expenditures for yourself, the campaign filings can be found by going directly to the NetFile Portal for Palo Alto?do not go to the City Clerk's Elections page because this link is hard to spot, and the links you are likely to select are blind alleys. Once there, you can download the raw data in a spreadsheet (.xlsx) which is useful if you are searching for specific types of donations or donors. The spreadsheet is very wide and you will need to delete/hide columns to make it vaguely readable. The button to download this spreadsheet is at the top of the NetFile Portal page.
Note: The spreadsheet does not include data from candidates who submit hardcopy forms (Eric Filseth is the only one doing so in this contest).
Note: Be careful in using the raw-data spreadsheet for analysis. First, because it is assembled from incremental reports, it contains updated entries along with the original versions (and some duplicates). And it contains typos: For smaller campaigns, the NetFile service encourages manual transfers of data (rather than importing electronically).
To get data on individual candidates, go to the bottom of the NetFile Portal page and expand the "11/04/2014 General Election" to "Candidates" and then "Council Member". These are PDFs. The Form 460 show the donations and expenditures for each reporting periods (and to-date totals). Form 497 (if any) document donations during the late phase of the campaign that require immediate reporting because of their size (threshold $1000).

3. The editorial in the November 7 issue of the Palo Alto Weekly identifies the funder as Roger Smith.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.