As the results of the city council election were coming in Saturday night, a familiar storyline took shape. There were plenty of intriguing political subplots building up to the election. And now we have weeks of limbo as we await a staggering six runoff races that will determine the make up of the next council. But the big takeaway was low turnout.
Every election cycle we are reminded that the city’s government is determined by precious few voters. This year, 67,788 people voted in the council elections, which is about 14 percent fewer than who voted in 2019 (when the mayor was also on the ballot). This year’s turnout was up around 46 percent from the last council-only election in 2017, but turnout was still fewer than 10 percent of the total number of registered voters.
Per usual, northern council districts drew more voters than southern council districts, another depressingly familiar statistic. But what was different about this year was that, in the weeks leading up to the election, Mayor Eric Johnson attempted to influence some of these southern Dallas council races. His influence drove more dollars into the campaigns in an effort to unseat two of his rivals on the city council. It didn’t work, but it got me thinking. There was a lot of money spent on this year’s council election but that money did not translate into huge voter turnouts. It seems like council candidates spend a ton of money each election cycle to win very few votes. But how much?
How much money do council candidates have to spend to turn out a single vote in their favor?
I spent yesterday crunching the numbers, tallying up the 2021 expenditures for the top finishing council candidates in all 14 districts. In some close races, I analyzed the top two or three candidates. In races in which incumbents didn’t face serious opposition, I tallied the expenditure totals for all the candidates. Most new candidates did not report spending in 2020, so I didn’t include incumbent spending in 2020 (there wasn’t a ton save a few candidates, such as Chad West) because it was too difficult to determine if 2020 spending was directly related to the 2021 campaign. These numbers also reflect the latest publicly available figure filed, so they may miss the last week-and-a-half or so of last minute fundraising. In other words, these numbers may be imperfect, but they are pretty close.
The results offer an imperfect metric for determining the effectiveness of council campaigns, but they also reveal several fascinating disparities in how campaign spending drives election results. Here’s one glaring example: District 13 candidate Leland Burk spent about $61.41 for every vote he received in Saturday’s election. His opponent in the runoff, Gay Donnell Willis, spent just $10.31 per vote. So what does this tell us about that race?
I break down the rest of the data and offer some interpretations after the jump:
|Top Ten Spenders Per Vote|
|District||Candidate||Votes||Total Spent||Per Vote|
Candidates With a High Cost Per Vote
As if the mayor’s Saturday couldn’t get any worse, this data (you can find the full table below) reveal that the two candidates he endorsed spent more per vote than any other candidate running in the council election. Both Yolanda Williams in District 5 and Donald Parish in District 7 spent around $85 for every vote they received. Compare this to the top finishers in these races. Jaime Resendez spent $30.70 for every vote he received, which is about what his closest opponent, Terry Perkins, spent. (Resendez won outright and does not face a runoff.)
In South Dallas/Fair Park’s District 7, Donald Parish’s spending may have driven up spending in his race, which saw the largest spending of any southern Dallas district even though the top three finishers recorded just 2,599 votes. Parish, who the mayor endorsed, spent $84.57 per vote, while sitting council member Adam Bazaldua finished with a thousand more votes, spending $38.23 per. Former Councilman Kevin Felder will challenge Bazaldua in the runoff after spending $37.57 for every vote he received.
Candy Evans fell flat again. This is her second run for the District 11 seat and her campaign chest balance basically consisted of a $40,000 personal loan. She spent all of it and walked away with a whopping 486 votes. That’s $82.42 of her own money spent for every person who preferred her as their council member.
New Candidates With Low Cost Per Vote
The candidates that jumped out to me in this analysis were the ones who didn’t need to spend a lot of money to secure votes. That suggests their name recognition and community buy-in was more important than campaign cash. This includes most of the incumbents. Giovanni Valderas was also an overachiever in the District 1 race to unseat North Oak Cliff Councilman Chad West. Valderas spent a mere $5,793 on the race and earned 1,590 votes to West’s 2087. That’s just $3.64 per vote.
This data point confirms assumptions I had heading into this race: Valderas is a strong candidate who resonates with a core component of the mixed district. Against anyone but West, whose support is solidified in North Oak Cliff, Valderas could have won. The problem is District 1 is a deeply divided district and the northern part tends to turn out more votes. It will be interesting to see if this year’s redistricting will split this neighborhood again to reflect its two core constituencies. (West’s district was created by combining parts of two district during the last redistricting, in 2011.) These results suggest that Oak Cliff would be served by having voices like West and Valderas both on council.
Another standout candidate is Jesse Moreno. The District 2 battle—Deep Ellum, the Cedars, Oak Lawn, and the Medical District—was flush with cash, with Moreno’s two opponents spending nearly $100,000. (Adam Medrano, the longtime council member for the district, was term-limited. He endorsed Moreno.)
But Moreno carried the most votes and nearly avoided a runoff by spending an average $25.85 per vote. That was significantly less than his opponents Sana Syed ($73.27 per vote) and Raha Assadi ($69.54). Remember, Moreno gave back $11,000 of his campaign contributions after he learned that it had come via entities controlled by a single individual, real estate developer Scott Rohrman. But spending isn’t what made the difference in the District 2 race. That should give Moreno confidence heading into the runoff.
Based on this analysis, Paul Ridley, who is running to unseat Uptown/East Dallas council member David Blewett, looks strong heading into the runoff. Ridley spent $50,000 less than Blewett on the campaign, and yet he earned 1,200 more votes than the sitting council member. That turned out to be a paltry $6.48 per vote for Ridley, compared to Blewett’s $26.86 per vote. Both were outspent by Elizabeth Viney who finished third despite dropping more than $120,000 on the campaign. Ridley’s success suggests that District 14 voters don’t love Blewett, they were just tired of Philip Kingston when Blewett upset the outspoken former council member during the last election cycle.
|29||4||Carolyn King Arnold||1,578||$15,362.82||$9.74|
Incumbents Don’t Need to Spend as Much to Turn Out Voters
This point may seem obvious, but it is interesting to see how effective incumbent spending turned out in practice. The three council members who were virtually unopposed – Casey Thomas, Adam McGough, and Cara Mendelsohn – kept their powder dry and spent relatively small amounts of campaign cash to secure their reelection. Bazaldua and Resendez spent the most per vote of any sitting incumbent, which I think we can chalk up to countering the spending of the mayor-backed candidates in those campaigns. West Dallas council member Omar Narvaez spent the third most per vote for an incumbent, but he was up against two opponents, Monica Alonzo and Wendi Macon,
whose combined campaign spending exceeded Narvaez’s. (CORRECTION: See Update 3)
Of all sitting council members, Paula Blackmon and Carolyn King Arnold proved most effective when measured on a cost-per-vote basis. Both found themselves in big spending races. Blackmon’s top two opponents spent a combined $76,000 on their races. Blackmon matched John Botefuhr’s spending by dropping $48,993 on the race, but she secured nearly four times as many votes for a cost-per-vote average of around $11. Botefuhr’s votes cost him about $40 each. Arnold spent half as much as her opponent, Maxie Johnson, but earned 300 more votes. It’s a low turnout district, and anything can happen in an even lower turnout runoff, but Arnold should have confidence.
An outlier here is Tennell Atkins. Atkins spent nearly $50,000 on a race – the third most of any incumbent – even though he was running virtually unopposed. His opponent spent around $11,000 on her campaign and only secured some 463 votes to Atkins’ 1,981. I’m curious to dig into his expenditures report to see what he dropped all that cash on. If you flip through Atkins’ contributors list, you’ll find a list of familiar North Dallas big donor names, including developer Lucy Billingsley, former council member and State Fair board member Alan Wayne, and others.
Former Council Members Keep Spending After Leaving Office
On paper, Monica Alonzo had a bad election. She dropped about $16,000 and only earned 438 votes. But she finished the campaign with a running balance of $57,642, and, in the years since she lost her West Dallas seat, Alonzo has continued to use her campaign war chest to buy meals, pay office expenses, and make political contributions. She may have not won back her seat, but she padded her account.
Felder also maintains a war chest that he uses for various expenses. He headed into the race with a war chest balance of $54,014 at the beginning of 2021. His campaign finance reports also show that he continued to spend campaign contributions on office expenses in the years after he lost his council seat.
|Ten Most Expensive Campaigns|
|District||Candidate||Votes||Total Spent||Per Vote|
It Costs A Lot of Money to Win in North Dallas
North Dallas council districts are expensive. The top five spenders in this year’s election ran in districts 11, 13, and 14. More than $350,000 was spent on North Dallas’ District 11 alone – for a two-year job that pays $60,000 a year and has one vote on a 15-member legislative body.
Developer Leland Burk was the biggest spender in this year’s race, dropping a quarter of a million dollars in his bid to represent Preston Hollow. In the runoff he will face an opponent in Gay Donnell Willis, who spent a comparatively paltry $41,000. Campaign spending is an imperfect metric, but that discrepancy tells me that either Willis is an incredible candidate, there are a lot of people in North Dallas who are not fond of Burk, or Burk simply really, really wants to be on the city council.
Huge Turnout Discrepancies Between North and South
Among the top finishers, Burk earned the most votes of non-incumbents, followed by Paul Ridley and Gay Donnell Willis. They were followed by the two candidates heading into the District 13 runoff, Barry Wernick and Jaynie Schultz. Comparing total vote tallies drives home the size of the discrepancies between turnout in certain districts:
- Tennell Atkins will secure his council seat after receiving fewer than half as many votes as Leland Burk, who faces a runoff.
- Narvaez held onto his seat while receiving fewer votes than Giovanni Valderas.
- Jaime Resendez faced an all-out assault on his District 5 seat from the mayor-backed Donald Parish, and yet he won the race outright with nearly half as many votes as Elizabeth Viney, who didn’t even make the District 14 runoff.
- Jesse Moreno finished strong, besting runner up Sana Syed by around 500 votes; the two will head to the runoff. But Moreno received fewer votes than Hosanna Yemiru, who did not make the District 11 runoff.
This Data Shows the Scale of Mayor Johnson’s Loss.
My final takeaway is to circle back to the first observation. One of the reasons why Mayor Johnson’s candidates spent the most per-vote of any other candidates in this year’s election is because they received staggeringly few votes. Donald Parish received 551 votes and Yolanda Williams received 404; both were among the bottom 10 vote tallies across all the council races. To put that in perspective, Parish and Williams’ combined total would have not finished first in any of the races, and that combined total would have only made the runoff in a single council race, District 5. And as the Dallas Morning News’ Rudy Bush argues in a column today, these results have left the mayor in a precariously weak position heading into the second two years of his term.
This data also drive home the point that, particularly in local elections, campaign contributions aren’t everything. You can’t necessarily buy a city council seat. There are some candidates, like Giovanni Valderas and Paul Ridley, who found ways to connect with voters despite spending comparatively little money on their campaigns. The data also seem to indicate that there is a tremendous amount of wasteful spending in city elections—candidates dump all sorts of money on campaigns that haven’t found the right message or done the leg work to connect with voters.
This could reflect the way council campaigns are financed, with big business interests often showering their favored candidates with big war chests regardless of how effective they are as candidates. It also suggests that campaign contributions often have less to do with securing votes and more to do with maintaining influence after the election is over.
UPDATE 5/5/21: Former council member Philip Kingston reached out with some addition caveats that help clarify some of these numbers:
“Some candidates won’t report some large expenses until July 15 because lots of stuff gets paid late. Lowish spending per vote can indicate efficiency but it can also indicate that a candidate would have performed better by spending more. So there’s a band of ideal spending per vote. Below it, the campaign is starting, above it, the candidate lacks true support. Problem is that the bands are different for different districts. In 14 [Kingston’s former district], I’d estimate the band to be $10/vote to $35/vote. And then there’s the whole question of money spent on behalf of a candidate, which can be more than the candidate spent in some districts. And expensive campaigns are notorious for underreporting spending to disguise their creepiness.”
Kingston’s point about last minute expenses was illustrated by numbers posted by Giovanni Valderas’ campaign treasurer Rob Shearer on social media yesterday. I spoke with Shearer before posting this, and we compared notes. He agreed that as long as I was comparing expenses up the most recent, 8 day campaign finance report, the comparisons were apples-to-apples, even if they weren’t accurate to the penny. His numbers for Chad West’s spending also include expenses from 2020, which I left out to make it easier to compare figures across campaigns. West was a bit of an outlier for the extent of his early campaign spending. Which is all to say that, as I mention up top, these numbers are meant to offer a ballpark evaluation of the various campaigns’ spending patterns, and I believe the picture they present from a 30,000-foot perspective is accurate.
UPDATE 2: As Cara Mendelsohn points out on Twitter, the original totals included in the piece left out votes from the portions of Denton and Collin County that lie in her district. The tallies have been updated to reflect those votes.
UPDATE 3: West Dallas candidate Wendi Macon alerted me to some double counting in her campaign finance reports. The tallies have been updated to reflect the more accurate sum of that campaign’s spending.
|City Council Campaigns ‘Cost Per Vote’|
|Rank||District||Candidate||Votes||Total Spent||Per Vote|
|28||13||Gay Donnell Willis||4,019||$41,454.46||$10.31|
|29||4||Carolyn King Arnold||1,578||$15,362.82||$9.74|
|37||10||Sirrano Keith Baldeo||583||$903.10||$1.55|