The Business Behind the Politics: What’s Your Vote Worth?

Air travel: $192,678 per hourHotel Stays: $232,850.63Coffee: $2,644Bagels: $944Pizza: $4,723 An unfortunate bill for an over-indulged, over-spent bachelor’s weekend straight out of “The Hangover?” Not quite. That hefty price tag is the money Governor Mitt Romney’s and President Obama’s campaigns spent collectively on necessities while blazing the campaign trail, according to data collected by Flipkey by TripAdvisor. During those months, the Obama campaign spent about 4.56% of its entire campaign budget on travel costs, while the Romney campaign spent about 25.69% of its total budget. But the percentages don’t give way to exactly how much each campaign shelled out for those all-important swing state stops. For some perspective: The Obama campaign laid down $246 million, while the Romney campaign spent $143 million. And that was just June through September. Up to this point in the 2012 campaign cycle, the Federal Election Commission reports more than $888 million spent on campaign operating expenditures, which includes staffing, travel, advertising, and voter outreach efforts. But that’s just a fraction of the total amount campaigns spent overall this season. With the inclusion of fundraising expenditures, legal fees, loan repayments, and other costs, campaign costs soared to an estimated $956,160,201.

Those staggering numbers beg the question: Is campaign spending worth the cost and time during a particularly long and grueling campaign season…and how much money does it take to win your vote?

John Geer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, says determining cost versus effectiveness is harder than you might think. “The problem is it’s hard to figure out whether the spending is worth it because (the candidates) are going to the same places,” he said. “The way to test the effectiveness is to have (one candidate) go to one state and not the other (where the second candidate goes). Then you can see the effects. Right now, they’re matching and negating each other’s effects.” So what’s the point? Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA, says the value of campaign stops – a reiteration of old-fashioned train station whistle stops of an era gone by – is not lost. “They have to go around the country and talk about their programs and messages, talk about what they want to do,” she said. “Think about the alternative: What would they do? Just stay in one place and advertise? No one wants that. It’s a point of connecting with real people in real places.” To that point, Vavreck said though voters want to see the candidates and experience them and their messages in person, the benefit of gaining votes from the stump speeches alone is minimal since only a small percentage of people who don’t agree with the candidate will go and see him or her in person. However, there is a much wider-circulated benefit and it comes as a completely free and therefore arguably cost-efficient byproduct of all that campaign spending. “The biggest effect comes from media coverage,” Vavreck said. “And there’s no substitute for positive coverage and the amount of it you’ll get from rolling into a place and putting on a spectacular rally with lots of people, a great band, and thousands of people holding homemade signs. The photos alone get on the front page of the paper. The media coverage is 50-75% of the reason candidates do (those rallies).” It seems, over time, the more campaigns spend, the more they look for ways to not only persuade voters to their side, but also to encourage voters to get to the polls – all without spending as much cash. And Vavreck says a big part of what drives people to the polls lies within social pressure – not the advertising medium used for months on end, or the amount of money candidates can shell out in various states. “Think about it in the abstract form: You’re a voter, a person who wants to cast a vote, but you don’t know who to vote for,” she said. “A friend tells you, you should vote for Mitt Romney. (Think of that) versus an ad on TV claiming Romney will bring jobs back. You think to yourself: Which is likely to be more persuasive? Depending on how good a friend you have, that would carry a lot of weight because of your personal relationship with that person.” Conveniently for voters who rely on their friends for political advice, there’s at least one company looking to capitalize on personal relationships to move voters to the polls on Election Day. Sincerely Inc. gives customers an opportunity to order, personalize, and send cards via their smart phones. Last week, the company launched a new line of cards aimed at mobilizing voters on November 6, and they’re offering the first 100,000 cards ordered for free. “The election is this big thing that happens every four years and the whole country is engaged,” Sincerely’s CEO Matt Brezina said. “We can disagree with political affiliation, but we all agree that it’s a great process and great for democracy.” When it comes to campaign mailers and fliers distributed throughout the election cycle, which amount to millions of dollars, there comes a point when voters simply begin to ignore them. And although it’s still an election mailer of sorts, Brezina said his product offers something different.

“I live in California where it basically doesn’t matter if I vote. But, I think, when I see someone with those stickers, I’m like, ‘Yea, I’m supposed to vote, that’s part of my duty living in this country and that’s really powerful,’” he said. “The reason users love our product and it stands out from a drug store card is that it’s 100% created by that person (sending it), and everything on the back of that card is personalized. It’s very different from getting a letter from 303 Main Street Election Headquarters.”

No matter how you get to the polls on Election Day 2012, Vavreck says the candidate you choose, and your decision to punch a ballot in the voting booth, still comes down to one thing: Money. “For a long time, people wanted to get money out of politics. That was 15 years ago,” she said. “Now,  we’re spending more money than ever on campaigns and anyone can advertise…But if candidates raise money, there’s really nothing anyone can say about not spending (the money when) it’s coming from citizens who clearly want to show their support for these candidacies.”