Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Indiana's 9th-CD GOP Primary 2022

It seems crazy now, but I thought I could win the race for Indiana’s hotly-contested 9th District seat for U.S. Congress in the May 3rd primary—if our grass roots spread widely; if my advertising choices paid off; if big money and/or big name-recognition didn't crush; and if God's hand was in it (in terms of delivering a victory). None of these conditions played out in our favor and we only got 3% of the vote. In particular, I over-estimated how much money we would raise; under-estimated what others would spend; and didn't understand that big money was absolutely crucial to win a seat in the U.S. Congress. 

One implication of this is that governance should be state and local rather than federal, as much as possible. There are other reasons to prefer state/local: it's constitutional in most cases; it leaves less room for bureaucratic excess; it is centered closer to the problem—and thus, in most cases, more able to form better solutions; and so on. But the connection to money is another concern. If big bucks are required, then we end up with a decidedly mixed bag of self-funded, independent candidates—or more often, candidates funded by national interests. 

Interesting characteristics of this election

First, having an off-year primary was useful, since fewer (marginal) voters turned out. Many people are attracted to the voting booth by the shiny object of a presidential election. Usually, they know even less than the average voter. And having so many candidates could have been advantageous because it diluted the crowd's impact, spreading it among many candidates.  

Second, because we had so many candidates, we only had one significant forum and no debates—both of which would have been helpful to me. (When we had an opportunity to speak, it was usually a 2-3 minute elevator speech—a limited medium for making comparisons between candidates, since it's a short time completely controlled by each candidate.) It was more challenging than normal to arrange for debates, but not prohibitively so. The lack of debates stemmed from poor organization and/or bias in trying to avoid them (by candidates or the establishment).

Third, I ran as an "economics professor", trying to bring expertise on federal public policy (especially in economics) to Congress. Among a wide array of economic policy concerns, my top issue was the national debt—driven by both of the major political parties for the last 20 years. (Hey, wouldn't it be a good idea to have at least one econ prof in DC these days?!)

A few times, people expressed concern about a connection between professor, college, and "liberal". This is a common point of confusion, conflating the Left-dominance of research-oriented (often "elite") universities with the moderation/conservatism of regional schools like IU Southeast. Our faculty aren't particularly Leftist, but even if they were, the market (consumers) wouldn't allow us to exercise it. If you're worried about Leftist dogma or trying to avoid poor teaching at research-focused schools, send your kids to schools like IUS instead. 

Fourth, Trump wasn't discussed publicly—in elevator speeches or sadly, even in our few opportunities to answer questions in a forum setting. The candidates were probably not eager to broach the topic, especially with such a short time to speak. And I suspect local party leaders wanted to avoid such a divisive topic.

Trump did come up, toward the end, in terms of advertising. One big-money candidate declared "pro-Trump" and the others followed. I suspect this was causation: Once someone broke the implied cartel and brought him up, the others had to follow or risk getting left behind. (Our campaign ran into many more people who were anti-Trump than pro-Trump. But this could be a reflection of anti-Trump preferences that were stronger.)

All of these are interesting factors, but none made a significant difference—at least for the small-money candidates. Exceedingly few voters paid attention to us—or were ever going to do so. I wasn't rejected; I was ignored. None of the above (except big money) would have changed this. 

Running our race

I'm glad that I thought victory was possible, because this made it much easier to stay motivated! I was amazed how God strengthened me—and my body/mind continued to wake me up early-AM after 5-6 hours of sleep for weeks on end. (I broke my ankle a month into the race, so I was actually limping for Congress instead of running!) Beyond attending dozens of events, I made 7,000 calls; we mailed out 5,000 postcards; we sent 35,000 texts; and we had 775,000 targeted banner ads on phones and computers. 

All of those efforts were spread throughout the district. Our only geographically-focused efforts were hundreds of radio ads on four stations (Christian and news/talk). You rarely know what works in a political campaign. (The only measurables are campaign contributions, volunteers, and yard signs.) In our case, looking at the results, we can confidently say that nothing worked (well), at least in a race against big-money opponents.

We focused on 25K or so of the 32K most-likely (off-year, GOP primary) voters we could reach through the data we had. So, I thought we were making contact with most of the voters. Wrong. Voter turnout was much higher than expected at 58K. (The District continues to trend GOP strongly, since the last off-year primary, so that's probably responsible for much of this gap.) So, my vote total was on the lowest end of my expectations. And thus, my vote percentage was much lower than the worst I anticipated. Another implication of the turn-out: we advertised to less than half of those who actually voted. Not good.  

With my previous campaign experience, there were some important things that I understood relatively well, but other things that I still missed. (One small, odd thing: our JPG banner ads had much higher click rates than the equivalent GIF files.) I made two mistakes: 1.) When I had good phone calls early in the campaign, we sent a hand-written postcard with a note from me. But we should have followed up more than once; we should have cultivated those relationships. 2.) Until Election Day, when I experienced the boring Clark County ballot, I never thought about the potential impact of important local races attracting more voters (e.g., sheriff). With more bandwidth and resources, we might have differentiated efforts based on expected turnout by geography. 

I'm happy with how smart we ran with the resources we had. I could have done things a bit better, but not much. I'm impressed with how hard we ran. I haven't worked that much since late in my undergrad years or maybe the first year of grad school. And among our many volunteers, I had four who were work horses: David on the website; Buddy, Mom, and Tonia texting like freaks.

Most important, I'm content with how well we ran, loving the people we came into contact with. We avoided negative campaigning. In our texts and phone calls, we engaged ornery people graciously. We ministered to people who are not yet (comfortable) in the goodness of God’s Kingdom.

For me, a big part of this was a.) staying balanced in my time with the boys and especially my wife Tonia; b.) observing a Sabbath from Saturday evening through Sunday evening; and c.) Bible study. In my previous two campaigns, I did daily Bible reading in the Gospels. This time, I mostly kept up with my radio/podcast and Bible teaching schedules.

Two other thoughts on faith. First, it turns out that my teaching schedule included Wednesday nights. Fortunately, the political calendar only had one Wednesday night event, bowing to the common Christian practice of Wednesday night programming. Providentially, my schedule had been determined many months before, allowing me to miss very little political activity because of classroom commitments.

Second, in my elevator speeches, I typically started with biography and then moved to policy (especially federal spending and the national debt). Within my biography, I mentioned our ministry efforts and resources. It never seemed to inspire much interest and I was never asked anything further about it. This is not too surprising, since the folks at these events are approaching politics as something between a serious hobby, a job/career, and a god. Few would be expected to have much if any bandwidth or interest in ministry as a priority, even assuming that they're Christian. (Again, this can't give a Christ-follower much reason for faith in the political process.)

We did best in Floyd and Clark counties—and relatively well in Monroe and Brown. (I'm not sure why on the latter two.) In four counties, I was beat by Bill Thomas—someone who made no apparent effort and ran as a Democrat a few years ago. Then again, Bill beat quite a few of the lower-tier candidates in certain counties. He even finished 4th in Harrison County! (That's apparently where he lives. And maybe a plain/popular name helps a bit—at least on the lower end?)

We can't take any of this personally, since we were rarely judged personally! (The big-money candidates—Erin Houchin, Mike Sodrel, and Stu Israel-Barnes—might lose some sleep over being judged, since they were all actively rejected by a majority of the voters!) Only a handful of voters really considered my candidacy. In a word, we weren't disliked; we were rarely considered at all.  

This lines up beautifully with a key tenet of "Public Choice" economics: the nearly-universal "rationally-ignorant voter". Since most voters have so little to offer the process—a vote and maybe a few bucks—there is little incentive to gain knowledge. Instead, voters typically rely on cheap and reasonably-effective signals (e.g., party, campaign spending, yard signs) to choose.

Labor economists call this "statistical discrimination"—as people stereotype and pre-judge to make decisions with highly-limited and costly-to-obtain information. (Of course, all of us do this every day, in a vast array of contexts!) As such, most voters simply ignored the six small-money candidates—and weighed the three big-money candidates, based on a policy issue, impressions from ads, etc. (All of this ties into my most-recent academic paper in Cato Journal on "the limits of democracy".) 

The campaign and the outcome

The winner (Erin) had big money and had been a five-term state legislator. Mike had served in Congress in 2004-06; is a long-time truck company owner; and was largely self-funded. Stu had no legislative experience but spent a lot of money. J had one term in the state legislature but only spent $5K. Erin got 37%; Mike got 26%; Stu got 21%; and J got 3% (like me).

I was not able to raise enough money to be a factor. A key economic concept explains part of the problem. Many people may want me to win, but they’d also like to keep their money. This leads to the “free-rider problem”, where people benefit from the efforts of others without contributing. Economists call this a “public good”—where consumption is “non-excludable” even if one does not pay. (Sometimes, markets can get around this problem, but provision is tricky, requires creative ways to raise money, and is usually produced at a sub-optimal level.) This problem was exacerbated since I was trying to raise money from people who aren’t particularly fond of government in the first place.

Another potential money-raising angle is PAC’s. All three of the big-money candidates got help from national groups. The House caucuses were bidding into the process, looking for winners who would help them fund-raise in the future. This story describes a crypto-CEO supporting Erin. I might have had a shot at this, given my views—if I’d been above the radar. And I had hoped Americans for Prosperity would get behind me. But I wasn’t a player and getting involved wouldn’t make much sense to them with so many candidates in the field.

Unfortunately, big money was required to have a shot. (Three candidates spent at least a half-million dollars, including help from PAC’s.) After that, the quality of the campaign and the perceived quality of candidates were decisive. In local and state races, diligent effort can substitute. But there's not enough work in the world to make a difference at the federal level.


Fortunately, the best (big-money) candidate won. Objectively, Erin ran the best race. She was specific in describing both her past record and her plans for the future. She has the best resume; she raised big money; she connected with the establishment; and she had a good ground game. Her margin of victory in Lawrence Co. (not her home county!) was enough to beat all of us, even if she didn't win another county.


Even better: The most-likely-to-be-conservative (big-money) candidate won. Erin seems to have a solid and broad conservative record as a state legislator. My only concern is her (rapidly) increasing connections with "the establishment." But hopefully, she won't compromise. Mike was reliably conservative when he was in Congress on everything except fiscal matters. (See: his grades from the National Taxpayers Union. See also: being average in a big-spending Congress can't be considered fiscally conservative.) Stu might be conservative, but has no record and his promises were too vague to inspire much confidence. 

It's probable that gender discrimination—for and against Erin—played a small role. I'd guess that there was anecdotal negative and significant positive, but not enough either way to change the race. From Republicans (compared to Democrats), I'd expect a bit more negative discrimination and less positive discrimination toward women. (Of course, one would hope for no discrimination at all!) It's interesting to speculate here, but it's all a guess; we can't estimate the impact of these empirically. 

Jim Baker "won" among the small-money candidates, earning 5%. He spent the most money among the six of us. And I suspect that he had the strongest ground game: more contacts across the district from his business connections—and thus, the ability to use/distribute yard signs. Another interesting factor (h/t to fellow candidate, Brian Tibbs): being first on the ballot is usually helpful. (There is some academic research on this!) The effect is (far) larger in down-ballot races, where voters have even less information than usual. But it probably gave Jim a little boost. 

J Davisson did well in his state legislative district—a small subset of the congressional district. (This probably pulled a bit from Houchin.) Jim, Brian, and I all did relatively well in Clark and Floyd—not surprising, given our connections here (including Brian's state rep race in 2020). The three of us probably pulled a bit from Sodrel, but not nearly enough to make a difference. And we all would have needed to drop out to help him at all, since we were pulling from each other to a large extent. (Interestingly, Jim and Brian both have significant connections to DC: Thoroughly Equipped—our discipleship curriculum. Jim hosted the first DC group in So. IN at his office. Brian's church used DC a ton and were the inspiration for what started as DC for Students and later became Getting Equipped.)

Earned media was of marginal (or no) importance. As expected, local radio and TV barely covered the race. The newspapers in the district have become far less active since I ran in 2006-08. (I saw the trend in dramatic trends from 2006 to 2008 in Bloomington. But all of the newspapers have faded in terms of political relevance since then.) The Indy Star was active but seemed biased—with an early puff piece for Houchin, 1.5 (legitimate) pokes at Sodrel and Barnes-Israel, and a juicy topic they never raised. Still, their impact was probably even less than mine.  

Related: It was interesting to learn that appearances on Fox/MSNBC and national talk radio are probably bought. (What are those prices? What is the role of third parties in facilitating these trades?) Stu appeared on FoxNews and one often hears candidates on talk-radio shows. It also makes one wonder about larger newspapers. With journalism and journalistic integrity fading over the past few decades, would/did they take money for stories? (Ironically, we could use some investigative journalism to figure this out!) 

Newspapers didn't print (or report on) press releases—even those of substance. For example, all of the big-money candidates (and at least two of the small-money candidates) openly supported a three-term (six-year) limit on tenure in the U.S. House. In contrast, I can support a longer term-limit, but understand that term limits are a mixed-bag approach, a distraction from larger issues, and a terrible idea if so short. Why? Well, imagine a one-term limit: it creates lame ducks immediately and it would transfer more power to an unelected bureaucracy. Of course, a three-term limit is not as bad, but it's not much better either. 

Here's the kicker: a six-year limit would maximize the number of people who receive the Congressional pension (which kicks in after...wait for it...five years). Hilarious! So, instead of term limits, I committed to refusing the Congressional pension—something only done by Ron DeSantis, Ron Paul, and Thomas Massie. You'd think that'd be "news"—both the policy analysis of term limits and the pledges that we'd taken. But no.

The candidates were mostly collegial—and always so with me. I really enjoyed my time with J, Jim, Brian, and Dan Heiwig (whose effort faded down the stretch). Of the big-money candidates, Stu and Erin were friendly to me—although it was easier for me to talk with Erin than Stu (not sure why). It was most awkward with Mike. We have some history from the 2006/08 races—no big deal to me, but perhaps something from his perspective. Then again, he seemed to be awkward with most/all of us. 

It was all friendly within the lower-tier, because we didn't take ourselves or the process too seriously. With one ironic exception, it was friendly enough between the tiers, because we were no threat and everyone was nice enough. It got a bit chippy in the ads between those in the upper-tier, so they didn't talk much in public. But the ads didn't seem especially brutal; this was simply par (or even birdie) for an often-unfortunate course. 

The county political events were generally well-run. Almost all of the local party leaders are volunteering a ton of time/energy and doing a commendable job. As a group, they were passionate, hard-working, competent, engaged, kind, and impressive. The interest group activity (federal, state, and local) was decidedly more mixed, ranging from professional and balanced to incompetent and corrupt. Their power is another tenet of Public Choice economics: the incentives are well in place for these folks to pursue concentrated benefits through government activity. But it’s another reason to have even less faith in the political process.

One anecdote stands out to me. I had a Zoom call with the Climate Change Lobby—an environmental group with branches in Bloomington and New Albany. I didn't anticipate much common ground. But I'll listen to anyone (for a while) and I'm happy for opportunities to teach as well. To my surprise, we were in nearly-complete agreement, since they were free-market environmentalists! So that was cool, but here's the sad part: none of my GOP colleagues met with them. Ideally, we'd have representatives in Washington who can listen and speak—not just as a reliable GOP vote, but as a thoughtful, civil, conservative voice in DC. 

Sadly, the process was quite a bit more sterile than my general election runs in 2006 and 2008. First, the timing was tight and the pace was blistering. We only had 13 weeks to put everything together. Second, most of the efforts were concentrated among political types—given the pacing, the paucity of off-year primary voters, and the need to vet and promote candidates for many different offices. Third, because you weren't going to talk with many people, it put more weight on short encounters and impersonal advertising.  

It was good times, all in all. I was called to run, but I wasn't called to win. Good news: I can return to my wonderful, purpose-filled, normal life! I won't run again—unless God bangs on my door, something strange happens, or you know folks who can help me raise at least $250,000! (I might do something at the local level, where money is not crucial, but I'm not particularly interested in state policy.)

We learned that big money is essential in national politics. This doesn't bode well for the future of the country. I wasn't optimistic about turning things around with respect to federal spending and the national debt—a dangerous, immoral, and undemocratic bipartisan effort. But with the power of money and “the establishment”, I'm less excited about the ability of Congress in general, and the GOP in particular, to take us where we ought to go. It's a good thing we have greater things in which we should place our trust.


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