Common wisdom says that the candidate who spends the most money will win the election.

According to Stephen Leavitt, in his book “Freakonomics,” the most physically attractive and charismatic candidate raises the most money, therefore spends the most money. And he will win the election. An unattractive, uncharismatic candidate will NOT win the election, no matter how much he spends. Enough money can make anyone look good.

Campaigns are expensive. A single lawn sign, the smallest available, costs about $2.00. Larger signs cost $30.  A well-built website runs several hundred dollars.  A bulk mailing of campaign brochures will require thousands. If a candidate buys ad space — billboards, media, or online — the bill will be in the tens of thousands. If a candidate hires a pro to run his campaign, he can go broke. Gone are the days when a smart, qualified layman can do it all by himself.

Successful campaigners accept the costs. George Stewart  raised record sums years ago when he ran for mayor. Lewis Billing raised, and spent, a small fortune to win, and keep his seat.  John Curtis outspent every mayoral candidate who came before him, and he has continued to raise money all during his first term in office, building an impressive war chest for his own PAC, presumably to fund his next campaign.

Real estate PAC money in Provo has made the stakes in elections very high. The  Utah County Board of Realtors, as political stakeholders, are anxious to fund candidates whom they believe will be sympathetic to their interests.  UCAR has become, as one candidate put it, “as much about political activism as (it is) about selling real estate.”   On the wall of their boardroom is a sign which announces, “90% of the candidates we support are elected.”  The association exhibits an attitude of entitlement when it comes to local races; they summon candidates to appear before them, and cannot comprehend when a candidate declines the invitation. This year, some candidates actually turned down Realtors’ PAC money. That scent on the breeze is the smell of rapidly evaporating influence.

So, can an election in Provo be “bought?”  Will the public really just choose the best-looking guy, or the best-looking ads? Are voters no more discerning than that? Do people really NOT pay attention to the issues and voting records? Are they swayed by “image”, which can be purchased? Do special interests determine who will be elected? Should they have that kind of influence? Does the power of money in an election undermine the sovereignty of the people?


  • Andrew

    It’s funny, I always find myself reading all of your articles despite not being a fan of most of them. I appreciate fair/balanced news and opinions, and welcome it to any platform. I get the feeling from all of your articles that you are unhappy with Mayor Curtis. I personally have almost been a life-long resident of Provo and have never been happier with our mayoral elected official. I think John Curtis has done things for this city that others have been unable or afraid or too comfortable to do. I believe he has vision and is competent to bring that vision to a reality.
    In politics, there are always and will always be special interest groups and money behind those groups. It’s unfortunate when that is abused or brings an unbalance to a political system. I think it’s important to realize while yes, there are some groups that become too big and influential, but there is no way to completely remove special interest from politics. Everyone, including Melanie McCoard, has a special interest that they wish to be brought forward or accomplished through a political platform – whether it comes from an association/group or from the citizens themselves. While we can’t beat the system, we need to be better informed citizens with our voting. It is my hope that our elected officials do what is best for those they are serving and take into account all interests and work to bring the best solutions available. That would be ideal but anyone would be kidding themselves if there was a perfect candidate. Funnily enough, that’s part of why I love the sitcom Parks and Recreation because it really is a satire of government and shows how ridiculous not only our system can be but also our citizens.
    I do agree with Melanie that we do need to be informed citizens and make sure we are aware of the issues and that we are informed about those who we are electing. That might be one of the most frustrating things about our system, an uniformed public voting for those with short-term solutions that will cause problems later down the road.

  • Nate Phillips

    Thanks Jenny – awesome insight that i’ve been thinking about for years. We don’t get candidates that are free to do things for the good of the people. We get candidates that need to cater to special interests as soon as they get into office in order to keep their job. The trouble is how to change it. Even if you went with budget restrictions, or publically funded campaigns with set limits – you can never stop the free speech of special interests that can do their own campaigning for any candidate that supports theirs interests. As PACs get more organized, unfortunately, I see it only getting worse, which represents the death of politics for the good of the people.