Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Closing the Gap in State Legislative Races: The Effect of Campaign Spending on Ballot Drop-Off

Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Closing the Gap in State Legislative Races: The Effect of Campaign Spending on Ballot Drop-Off

Article excerpt


This article analyzes ballot drop-off in state legislative elections. Publicly available campaign finance information and election turnout results from the State of Oregon from 2008-2014 were used to test the collective and individual effects of various campaign expenditures on ballot drop-off. The results show that overall campaign expenditures have a statistically significant effect on reducing ballot drop-off. However, the effects of specific types of expenditures vary; media and professional expenditures help to reduce ballot drop-off, but field and general office expenditures have little effect.

Keywords: drop-off, state legislative elections, turnout, undervote

1. Introduction

All political campaigns face the daunting task of deciding how to best allocate their limited resources to improve their chances of victory. These decisions involve a calculated financial investment in a range of communication techniques to persuade voters and turn them out to vote. State legislative races, which are inevitably less salient, usually account for relatively lower turnout compared to the races at the top of the ticket. The phenomenon of lower turnout for races further down the ballot (i.e. state legislative seats, municipal elections and ballot measures) from those at the top of the ballot (presidential, congressional and gubernatorial) is often referred to as ballot "drop-off." Each one of those voters who fails to fill out their complete ballot is a missed opportunity for a legislative vote. This article is an analysis of the effectiveness of various communication strategies and campaign expenditures used in certain state legislative races to offset this ballot drop-off, by analyzing data in Oregon in 2008-2014.

In each of these election years, all state legislative races in Oregon had lower voter turnout in their district than the top of the ticket, as expected. Campaign practitioners tend to think this effect is caused by an information gap between the top of the ticket, where money spent and media coverage is greater, and the "down ticket" races. In addition, such campaign advisors see these drop-off voters as their best chance to increase relative turnout, because the person has already been convinced to turn in their ballot. In a Downsian sense, they have already invested the time and effort to vote, so the marginal costs of voting in these lesser contests should be more easily overcome. To win, legislative candidates must account for drop-off and build a strategy to close the turnout gap. This research seeks to advance knowledge of campaign spending and examine the assumption that increased spending in state legislative races decreases ballot drop-off. In addition, it will take a look at individual expenditure types to weight the value of one approach over another.

During the 2012 election cycle in Oregon, competitive legislative races consistently saw combined spending above $1 million (ORESTAR). This reflects the competitive nature of these races as political parties grapple over control of the legislative branch. In Oregon, limits on campaign expenditures have taken a back seat to transparency, leading to legislative races that are among the most expensive in the nation. Consultants and staff often have a background in larger campaigns, so local races often become a scaled-down version of those efforts. However, are there are no guarantees with the same types of campaign expenditures work as well with lesser races.

2. Previous Research

The paucity of research on this topic at the state legislative level often relate to a lack of reliable data available in smaller districts, as well as the widely varied organizational structure of legislative bodies from state to state. A part of this problem was remedied in 1987 by the Inter-university Consortium for Political Science Research (ISPSR) with the creation of a database with state legislative election results from 1968 to 1986 (Carey et al. …

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