Gonzalez Lost

So, our guy· lost the election. Evil triumphed and good lost.

There are all sorts of possible ways to put a positive spin on the results, including:

  • The election was so close (well within any possible statistical “margin of error” for the winner) that Newsom hardly has a mandate. With quite near half the voting electorate opposing Newsom, he’s got a fair amount of opposition out there that countervailing forces on the Board of Supervisors can draw from.
  • This is by the far the best a Green Party· candidate has done in a major election. The Democrats are feeling the heat—intensely. They had to call in the big guns here—Al Gore a week before the election·, and Bill Clinton himself on election eve·. The Democrats see the writing on the wall, and it’s not good.
  • Matt remains president of the Board of Supervisors—not an insignificant position, and clearly his clout should be boosted by the strong support he got in this election.

There’s lots of speculation as to what particular factors lead to Gonzalez’s loss. With such a small margin of defeat, it could really be anything. Certainly, the Democrats’ heavy-handed tactics at the 11th hour could have made a difference. The San Francisco Chronicle’s endorsement may have also influenced a handful of voters. (On the other hand, the fact that Howard Dean did not endorse Newsom· moderately increases my respect for Dean).

I’d like to offer a somewhat heretical alternative explanation: Campaign Finance Reform. Despite rules limiting individual contributions to mayoral candidates to $250 each, Newsom outspent Gonzalez 8 to 1. I met many activists who contributed the statutory limit to the Gonzalez campaign, and may well have contributed more if there had been no contribution cap. Gonzalez was strapped for funds for television ads, which might have reached an audience that otherwise hadn’t heard from the candidate.

In the absence of any contribution cap, would Newsom have gotten more money? Probably. Would it have helped him all that much? I don’t think so. Or at least the relative effect on the additional money to both campaigns would have favored Gonzalez. It’s Econ 101—the marginal utility of cash decreases the more you have.

Once you’re outspending the other candidate by an order of magnitude, a few extra hundreds of thousands of dollars may not do a lot for you, but for someone like Gonzalez who struggled to reach a critical threshold and have some opportunity to publicly respond to unfair accusations levied against him, the additional funds could have made all the difference.

This is ultimately the peril of a system which limits contributions but not expenditures. And I can’t conceive of any system that could survive First Amendment scrutiny and still limit expenditures in a meaningful way. This election should give rise to questions for those of us on the left who think that campaign finance reform is the way to fix politics: in some cases, the only way an insurgent can challenge the status quo may actually be limited by contribution caps.

It may be, then, that contributions are not actually an incremental step towards the final goal, but a step in the wrong direction. I can see public funding for elections and mandates for free media time fixing a lot of the problem, but I don’t see how contribution caps make those sorts of reforms even remotely more likely. In fact, they may instead create the impression that the problem is being fixed, and reduce pressure to effect these other reforms that will actually make for a more level playing field.