Irvine’s Election: Forget About Blue or Red…How Did Another Color Do?

By Wesley Oliphant –

Like most things, an election can be seen in different ways. Of course, most are analyzing the recent election in terms of the Blue and Red divide. Why did the Democrats not do as well as predicted? Is Trump and his particular brand of politics finished? However, another color to consider in this election is green. Not green as in the Green Party that has seen some electoral success in Europe. But green in terms of money. How effective was money in the elections?

When my wife and I were looking for a home in Irvine, I remember hearing the words “Cash is king” a lot. Such an expression also readily applies in politics. Aside from Presidential elections which most people follow, most people do not know or study the candidates much. So, they tend to go with what they know and a lot of what they know is what they have heard – in particular, messages from advertising which of course costs a lot of money.

On the national level, it appears the spending was not very effective. For example, Senate Democratic candidates raised $809 million compared with $494 million for the GOP. Yet, the net gain for Democrats is currently 0. In South Carolina, despite raising a record $108 million for his campaign, Democratic candidate Harrison lost to Republican Lindsey Graham by over 10%. In his victory speech, Senator Graham remarked of those spending to unseat him… “This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.” Michael Bloomberg helped direct $110 million to the Biden campaign in Ohio, Texas and Florida, but the states still went for Trump.

What about for Irvine’s elections? Surely, when you consider that people tend to know (or care) much less about local candidates, the power of money should be even more persuasive.

Some people interested in Irvine politics obviously thought so. As can be seen from the reporting by Irvine Watchdog, a considerable amount of PAC (Political Action Committee) money was spent on the election for Irvine mayor and its City Council. There was not only money spent supporting candidates but quite a bit of money spent to attack certain candidates. For example, to oppose the council candidate Tammy Kim there was nearly $123,000 in PAC money. How did that spending do?

The money spent does not appear to be that effective in Irvine either. First, we can focus on four candidates. Of the two candidates who received hundreds of thousands of dollars, one of them was soundly defeated, and the other was (barely) elected. On the other hand, the two candidates who had hundreds of thousands spent against them have both been elected.

Second, we can simply focus on the Mayor’s race. The incumbent Christine Shea got $160,000 of PAC money while the challenger Farrah Khan got only $80 (an amount that could not even cover my family’s weekly food bill). But Farrah Khan won by a convincing margin of over 10%.

Third, if you’re into statistics, we can look at the measure of association known as correlation that ranges from -1 to 1. We can see by focusing on the top 6 vote getting candidates (below which the candidate votes drop off significantly) that the correlation between PAC spending and official vote totals is very low at about 0.15. That means there was little association between the amount of PAC money and the number of votes received.

This result compares with the 2018 election. Three candidates received hundreds of thousands in PAC money in that election. Of the three, one won reelection convincingly as Mayor while the other two came in second (elected) and third in votes for City Council.

Why this difference? The potential reasons for this difference are many. Perhaps Irvine voters who voted for Biden in every precinct except one saw the incumbent mayor and Councilman as Republicans (the Councilman dropped his party registration around the time he was appointed to the Council last year) and voted against them. Perhaps voters found the campaign pitches of some candidates to be particularly appealing. Perhaps Irvine voters have been paying more attention to their city’s politics and were no longer persuaded by fliers and mailers and such. I do not pretend to know enough here to advance a credible theory and would only be able to tell a story. But what the numbers imply is that money even in the hundreds of thousands is not always a sufficient condition for determining an election in Irvine.

So, while most people concentrate on and analyze in terms of red and blue, another color should be considered including for Irvine. That is green in terms of money. For Irvine at least, it seems that cash is not always king. Or at least its power is not supreme.