Commentary: Bottom Line… Measure J Campaigns Are Expensive

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Alan Pryor on Monday had an interesting revelation—Measure H got blown out despite the No side being heavily outspent.

While it looks really bad to spend nearly $1 million and lose by more than 60-40, it’s not that surprising. Their problem is not that they spent some exorbitant amounts of money, but rather that they didn’t run a very good campaign this time.

Basically, there are three large pools of money here. The $225,000 for communications which includes printing and mailing costs. The nearly $400,000 for Spafford and Lincoln which was their ground game. And the $234,000 to attorneys and consultants.

Let’s start briefly with the last pool of money—basically they have a land use campaign. So they need to be able to make technical and legal points, use their consultants strategically. This is part of the campaign that the opposition doesn’t really have to use. I don’t see any way in a land use campaign to avoid having attorney and consulting fees.

Second, the biggest pool is going to the ground campaign. A professional ground campaign is expensive, there is no way around that. Most campaigns in Davis use volunteer precinct walkers and canvassers; you can do a campaign on the cheap that way.

But the problem that a land use campaign is going to have is that they are going to heavily rely on student canvassers since that’s where a lot of their staffing comes from. They get criticized for paying their interns and canvassers, but the problem they have is that if they don’t pay their interns and canvassers they get criticized for exploiting their labor.

I had this conversation a number of years ago with one of the campaigns and pointed out there was in fact way too much spending and that the optics were bad. But they countered that they can’t get away with using college students to walk for free. They get hammered either way.

They probably doubled down on this because they felt in 2020 they lost the election in part because they weren’t able to walk door to door. This time, they hit their numbers, hitting 30,000 households on the ground and 30,000 on the phones.

There is plenty to criticize here because it didn’t work. Clearly the message wasn’t right. Plus, as we have laid out, they made mistakes. But at the end of the day, if they wanted a ground campaign, they were going to have to pay for it.

That leads me to the last large pool of money—the media. This expenditure includes the media consultant, the printing, and mailing costs, plus various ads.

This is one area where I think they not only spent poorly, but where I think they might have been able to avoid that. When the Taorminos ran WDAAC, they didn’t do any mail. They ran an all-media campaign. They still purchased things like Facebook ads and other social media ads, but avoided the big glossy flyers that, in most cases in Davis at least, probably do more harm than good.

Sure enough, I think the media ads run were fairly pedestrian and probably did not help them.

Did they pay too much? Leaving aside the issue of foregoing the ads, they again have this problem—they can’t go cheap. The No on H side has a huge advantage here. They can do their own in-house mailers or drop pieces, they can print off their home computer and copy it at Copyland or FedEx office and get away with it.

But if the multi-million dollar project team goes cheap, it looks cheap, not frugal or wise.

At the end of the day, the campaign probably could have reasonably reduced its costs to five or six hundred thousand, but they were always going to outspend the No side by at least 10 to 1. It’s the nature of such campaigns.

There is really nothing untoward here. They suffer from three points: (a) they made the decision to do direct mail which I think is debatable in Davis; (b) as a land use campaign, they have attorney and consulting costs; (c) they pretty much have to use paid canvassers; and (d) once they made the decision to do mail, going cheap would look cheap.

They failed because they made a tactical error to challenge the ballot arguments and do so with a sitting councilmember and because the message they presented failed to resonate with the voters. But neither of those are campaign expenditure issues. They simply failed to sell the project to the voters—and frankly, it’s a lot easier in Davis to get people to vote No than to get them to vote Yes.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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11 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    But the problem that a land use campaign is going to have is that they are going to heavily rely on student canvassers since that’s where a lot of their staffing comes from. They get criticized for paying their interns and canvassers, but the problem they have is that if they don’t pay their interns and canvassers they get criticized for exploiting their labor.

    I had this conversation a number of years ago with one of the campaigns and pointed out there was in fact way too much spending and that the optics were bad. But they countered that they can’t get away with using college students to walk for free. They get hammered either way.

    Totally misses the point.

    The “optics” look bad for the students, themselves (e.g., the “College Democrats”).  For example, they appear willing to compromise their own stated concerns (e.g., regarding local contributions to climate change) for pizza (literally, or figuratively).  And the developers look bad for encouraging this.

    When the Taorminos ran WDAAC, they didn’t do any mail. They ran an all-media campaign.

    They also targeted an existing population (seniors), did not run into the same level of opposition, took deposit money (which has since been “returned”), and proposed the “Davis buyer’s program” – which may have appealed to some who don’t care about discrimination.

    As far as the cost of the DiSC campaign, can you imagine how much money the developers stood to gain from it since they were willing to spend $1 million on the campaign?

    Opponents have no financial upside, regarding their contributions in both time and money.  Unless you count getting stuck in traffic if something like DiSC ever won, since that does have a personal financial cost.

    In any case, pursuing development campaigns might (still) be cheaper than supporting campaigns of politicians who would simply “implement” what developers want, despite whatever a community actually prefers.  (This is, however, the more “normal” way things are done – and is the reason that the valley experiences continued sprawl.)

    And frankly, the cost of campaigns themselves (hopefully) keeps the number of proposals somewhat in check in the first place.  (Though developers do seem to be willing to try to explode the city’s borders in regard to the “100% Housing Development DISC” that’s now being proposed in a leapfrog location, Shriner’s, etc.)  No doubt, they’re hoping to tie in their efforts to the state’s dictatorial mandates, especially since those same state officials are beholden to the interests which help them win office in the first place.

    Perhaps the cost of campaigns needs to be higher, to discourage all of this.

    You’d think that one peripheral approval every 10 years or so would be more than enough.

    But if one believes that the small amount of contributions from those concerned about sprawl is making a difference, that’s certainly one way to encourage even more contributions from that side.  In a sense, the “slow-growth” side gets their money’s worth, even though they experience no financial gain as a result.  I know of no other venue which offers such non-financial “returns” on investment.  🙂

     

  2. Keith Y Echols

    As I said in another comment; I think the spending gap just illustrates the degree of regressive No Growth attitude there is in Davis.  It also shows how much of an uphill battle progressive economic reform is going to be.

    Man, this campaign continues to stink up political landscape and linger in the local media.  I found Alan Pryor’s article to be distasteful in that it had no real point other than to continue to play the victim.  Despite the economic disadvantages regressive No Growthers won!   It’s like Rocky beating Ivan Drago and then instead of giving a speech that pulls people together, he whines about all the money and steroids that Soviets spent on Drago.

  3. Ron Oertel

    While it looks really bad to spend nearly $1 million and lose by more than 60-40, it’s not that surprising.

    It was actually about 64%”no”, and 36% “yes”.

    https://www.yoloelections.org/election-returns/returns#davis

    And plenty of people (including David) seemed “surprised” by that result, based upon his comments leading right up to the election.

    Sure enough, I think the media ads run were fairly pedestrian and probably did not help them.

    It certainly didn’t help them when they spent $6,000 for ads on the Vanguard which never appeared.  (Other than the ongoing content of the articles, themselves.)

    1. Bill Marshall

      While it looks really bad to spend nearly $1 million and lose by more than 60-40, it’s not that surprising.

      It was actually about 64%”no”, and 36% “yes”.

      Well, first statement and second statement are true…

      The second statement is a distinction, without a difference… pointed… clarifying as to #’s (and to ‘agendas’?)… otherwise, useless…

      1. Ron Oertel

        The second statement is a distinction, without a difference… pointed… clarifying as to #’s (and to ‘agendas’?)… otherwise, useless…

        Seems to me that it’s not too difficult to put forth the actual percentages (rather than vaguely “rounding down” substantially), unless one has an “agenda”.

        And yet, you focus on the one who put forth the actual percentages that DiSC lost by. Almost a 2-1 ratio, if you want to “round up” slightly. (Closer to that, actually.)

        Maybe it’s you who (in addition to the Vanguard) has the “agenda”? Certainly seems that way, regardless of the specific article.

        Did you actually feel a need to engage, regarding this? Serves some purpose, in your mind?

        64% rejection, and yet there still seems to be a “campaign” going on. (There certainly will be regarding the upcoming “Leapfrog DISC 100% Housing Development”.)

  4. Todd Edelman

    One, two, three good reasons to cheer/Only gonna go semi-Godwin here/apologismgasm in full infection/perhaps it’s a good time for a reflection/but hold a second that photo at the top/any smart and kind person should do a mike drop/Aggies holding signs that lie/if graded on truth they’d get F’s and cry/but okay now back to the main point, the pain joint who should we anoint?/as the lead apologist here never mind let’s focus on the content instead/and perhaps put this matter partly to bed/DISC 2022 as a project was a rotten pomegranate/with a proper General Plan Update it’d never be on the ballot/oh I forgot the Godwin thing/So yeah what if we wanted to re-introduce slavery?/Would it have lost because of the “messaging” or it’s depravity?

    1. Keith Y Echols

      Todd that’s some stream of consciousness of a post you’ve got going there.  I’m not sure what the Secret Cabal of the Bicycle Illuminati is giving you to help your enlightenment but I hope it’s the good stuff.

      As for General Plan Update being some magical fix for the land use problems in Davis?….. that’s hilariously absurd.

  5. Jim Frame

    the problem they have is that if they don’t pay their interns and canvassers they get criticized for exploiting their labor…But they countered that they can’t get away with using college students to walk for free.

    I expect that the number of college students willing to canvass neighborhoods for free about a land use issue that will be of no benefit to them during their college years can be counted on one hand.  And the few who are willing probably aren’t the ones you want out there trying to sell your project.

    1. Ron Oertel

      And the few who are willing probably aren’t the ones you want out there trying to sell your project.

      I actually view this in an opposite manner.

      In a political campaign, I’d rather hear from the people who actually believe in what they’re doing, rather than from those getting paid to participate (even if it’s just “pizza money”).

      None of those on the “No” side got paid.  In fact, it cost them money.  As such, they would be equivalent to any “handful” of Yes supporters willing to canvas for no money (assuming they exist).

      During the last campaign, I was holding a sign opposing DiSC when a guy (who somehow appeared “homeless”) came roaring down the Mace overpass on the sidewalk on a bicycle.  I stepped off the sidewalk to let him pass, which I suspect he appreciated.  He came to an abrupt halt at the intersection after passing me, and asked me how much I was getting paid to wave/hold the sign.  I told him I was doing so “for free”, to which he responded something like, “cool”.  (The exchange left me with a very positive feeling.)

      All of the responses that I did receive (e.g., from drivers or the small number of pedestrians) were positive.

       

  6. Alan Hirsch

    That money paid by the develop to finance the campaign is considered the ‘only” cost of a campaign is very narrow thinking.

    It fact J votes come ata high cost to the community,

    Opportunity cost: The campaign cost three years of putting Downtown plan on hold by taking staff time, which is in short supply.

    Citizen costs:  It cost thousands of volunteer hour on both yes and no side.

    And it poisoned a lot of debates and relationships, i.e. drained sociao capital.

    And result was not move us not ahead one inch. Nothing was really resolved.  We don’t have a plan, we have have grid lock of competing visions.

    Are making Measure J decision really where our community should be investing its social capital resources?

    The council need to decide if it really want to advance these Land use issues to ballot when they look like they do not have broad support.

    Pick your battles… Measure J forces use into hi cost political war that levee high cost on citizens activist and our city  government.

     

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