Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Indiana's 9th-CD GOP Primary 2022

It seems crazy now, but I thought we could win the race-- if 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. 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/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; and it is centered closer to the problem-- and thus, in most cases, more able to form better solutions. But the connection to money is another concern: if big money is required, then we end up with a decidedly mixed bag of self-funded, independent candidates or more often, candidates funded by national interests. 

Other factors in this election: 

1.) Having an off-year primary was useful, since fewer (marginal) voters turned out. And having so many candidates could have been advantageous because it diluted the crowd's impact, spreading it among many candidates. (I discuss various angles of this in my most-recent academic paper on "the limits of democracy".)  

2.) Related to having 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 op 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 the candidate.) It would have been 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).

3.) This is small, but still interesting (and perhaps relevant to your life): I ran as an "economics professor", trying to bring expertise on federal public policy (especially in economics) to Congress. (Wouldn't it be a good idea to have at least one econ prof in DC these days?) A handful of times, I ran into people who wondered about me, expressing a connection between professor, university, and "liberal". This is a common point of confusion, conflating the Left-dominance of research-oriented (often "elite") schools with the moderation/conservatism of regional schools like IU Southeast. Our faculty, as a whole, aren't particularly liberal. In any case, the market (consumers) wouldn't allow it. If you're worried about the Left or trying to avoid crappy teaching at research-focused schools, send your kids to places like IUS. 

4.) As a topic, Trump wasn't discussed publicly-- in elevator speeches or sadly, our few opportunities to answer questions in a forum setting. Trump did come up, toward the end, in terms of advertising. One big-money candidate declared "pro-Trump" and the others followed. (Was this correlation or causation?) Once someone broke the implied cartel and brought it up, the others had to follow or risk getting left behind. Privately, 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, but none made a significant difference-- at least for the small-money candidates. Exceedingly few 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

All that said, 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.) Beyond attending dozens of events, I made 7K calls; we mailed out 5K postcards; we sent 35K texts; and we had 775K 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 talk-radio). 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 voters we could reach through the data we had. So, I thought we were getting to most of the voters. Wrong. Voter turnout was much higher than I expected at 58K. (The District continues to trend GOP strongly, since the last off-year primary, so that's a big chunk of it.) 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 things that I understood relatively well, but other things that I still missed. Even though I have tremendous expertise in policy and some expertise on politics, I was way off in my understanding of some key aspects of the latter. (One small, odd thing: our JPG banner ads had much higher click rates than the equivalent GIF files.)

I made two other mistakes (neither of which would have made much difference): 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 Co. ballot, I never thought about the potential impact of other local races in attracting more voters. With more bandwidth and resources, we might have differentiated efforts based on expected turnout by geography. 

I'm happy 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, Tonia texting like freaks.) I'm happy with how smart we ran with the resources we had. I could have done things a bit better, but not much. 

Most important, I'm content with how well we ran, loving the people we came into contact with. For me, a big part of this was a.) staying balanced with the boys and especially Tonia; b.) observing a Sabbath from Saturday evening through Sunday evening; and c.) Bible study. (In my previous two campaigns, I had a daily Bible reading schedule in the Gospels. This time, I mostly kept up with my study/radio/podcast/teaching schedule.)

One other small thing: 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. Neither would be expected to have much if any space or interest in ministry as a priority, even assuming that they're Christian. (And again, this can't give a disciple of Jesus much reason for faith in the political process.)

We did best in Floyd and Clark-- 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 last time. Then again, Bill beat quite a few of the lower-tier candidates. 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 did poorly in terms of votes. But we can't take this personally, since we were rarely judged personally! (Erin, Mike, and Stu might lose some sleep over being judged!) Only a handful of voters really considered my candidacy. In a word, we weren't disliked or rejected; we were ignored.  

All of 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, impression from ads, etc. 

The race and the outcome

Big money was required to have a shot. After that, the quality of the campaign and the perceived quality of candidate were decisive. Big money is a necessary but not sufficient condition to win a race for U.S. Congress. In local/state races, diligent effort can substitute. But there's not enough work in the world to make a difference at the federal level.

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.

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." (It was interesting/sobering to see/learn a bit about the influence of national PAC's and Congressional caucus monies.) But hopefully, she won't compromise (or will get stronger). Mike was reliably conservative when he was in Congress on everything except fiscal matters. (See: the grades he received 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 none of either!) 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 lower-tier / small-money candidates. 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: 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 here, 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 didn't actively cover the race. The newspapers in the district have become far less active since I ran in 2006-08. (You could see the trend 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 and seemed biased-- with its early puff piece for Houchin, 1.5 (legitimate) pokes at Sodrel and Barnes-Israel, and a juicy topic they never raised. But their impact was probably tiny.  

Related: It was interesting to learn that appearances on Fox/MSNBC and national talk radio are probably bought. (What are those prices?) Stu was on FoxNews and one hears candidates on Hugh Hewitt's show often. 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. Most notably: all of the big-money candidates (and at least two of the second-tier candidates) openly supported a three-term limit on Congressional tenure. In contrast, I can support a longer term-limit but see term limits as a mixed-bag approach, a distraction to 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 three-term 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 (who 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 local/county political groups/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. I'm not going to get into the details here. But the interest group activity (federal, state, and local) was decidedly more mixed, ranging from professional and balanced to incompetent and corrupt. (Again, this is another reason to have even less faith in 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 had a ton of common ground, 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 conservative voice in DC. 

Sadly, this 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! And unless God bangs on my door, I won't run again-- unless something strange happens or you know folks who can help me raise $250K! (I might do something at the local level, where money is not crucial, but I'm not 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 spending and debt. 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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