Back in June, Adam Schleifer became the latest in a long line of self-financed candidates to go down to defeat on Election Day when he finished 2nd in the the NY-17 Democratic primary.
Schleifer, a first time candidate at 39, is among a new generation of self-funders. In Schleifer’s case, this meant spending close to $4 million of his own money – or perhaps more accurately $4 million of his father’s money.
Not surprisingly, Schleifer’s spending became an issue in the race and helped define his candidacy for voters. Indeed, real estate developer Jeffrey Gural, one of Schleifer’s donors, told the New York Times: “If [Schleifer] wins, it shows that you can buy an election.”
Now, Schleifer’s race raises two important questions. First, how do self-funding candidates fare when they run in the digital age? And second, what lessons can self-funded candidates draw from in order to get elected?
To sum it up, despite pouring often considerable amounts of their own money into their races, self-funding candidates almost always lose.
Back in the 2016 cycle, self-funding candidates won a paltry 12.5 percent of the races they ran in, a decline from the pretty dismal 24 percent success rate in the previous presidential cycle of 2012.
The future doesn’t look much brighter with a growing bipartisan consensus about too much economic inequality in the country.
Jennifer Steen, a political scientist who wrote a book on self-funders in congressional races writes: “a candidate's chance of winning a primary or general election tends to decrease as the amount of personal funds invested in their campaigns increases." That’s right – the more a candidate spends their own money in a race, the less likely they are to win.
That said, there are notable exceptions to this rule and we have worked for successful self-financed candidates like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former New Jersey Sen./Gov. Jon Corzine, and former Minnesota Gov./Sen. Mark Dayton.
And of course the country has elected many rich presidents with names like Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Bush, and Trump to name a few, and elected many others to other elected offices down ballot.
Nevertheless, the seeming paradox about a self-financed candidate is that while it appears to be much easier to not need to worry about fundraising, forgoing raising money presents a unique challenge that often dooms their campaigns.
Raising money the traditional way requires a candidate to build a campaign infrastructure — specifically a finance team — to solicit and collect money and leverage and grow their network of donors.
And these steps are the very same ones required for running a successful campaign – building a campaign infrastructure to contact voters and leveraging a supporter network to win more votes. Indeed, this reality is one reason why Bloomberg successfully running for reelection in 2005 created a series “friendraisers” to engage supporters – without soliciting donations.
And when people donate to your campaign or attend your "friendraisers" they “buy into” your campaign and your candidacy and that means they’ll likely help you in other ways as well, including voting for you.
And beyond that, hosting and attending fundraisers allows a candidate – indeed forces them – to hone their message delivery and understand if it connects or not. This is the cheapest form of message testing which self-financed candidates miss out on.
These steps are often overlooked if you’re simply writing a check to finance your own campaign. You certainly don’t need any infrastructure to purchase TV or digital ads or send direct mail.
Therefore, self-funders can miss the importance of this critical step – building infrastructure and political support. Unless a self-financed candidate is systematic about doubling down on building their campaign’s infrastructure and grassroots political outreach, and especially if they’re new to politics, they’re often cooked right out of the gates.
Here are five lessons for helping self-financed candidates win tough races:
Lesson 1: Outline your rationale.
A self-funded candidate needs a clear and crisp rationale for their candidacy and a very compelling answer to “why” they’re running and “why” they should be elected. If they’re new to politics and public service they need to make clear why the times call for their nontraditional biography.
In October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, one of Bloomberg’s direct mail pieces said in essence: when crime was out of control, we elected a prosecutor to be mayor (Rudy Giuliani), with our economy now in crisis, it’s time to elect a businessman. The Bloomberg message fit perfectly with the times.
Lesson 2: Get concrete about how you’ll make people’s lives better.
Self-funded candidates can’t simply recycle the “I am 100 percent independent and am therefore not beholden to donors and special interests” line. Instead, they need to explain how as an outsider they’ll shake up the system and, most importantly, how their outsider status uniquely enables them to have a meaningful impact.
Lesson 3: Act 100-percent authentic.
A wealthy self-financed candidate must be totally authentic – and the glare of the media’s spotlight will keep a watchful eye on them if they try and deceive voters. Whatever you do, don’t try and pretend you’re something you’re not. Voters may not understand the nuances of differing public policy prescriptions, but they certainly can pick up if someone or something is phony. John Kerry didn’t fool anyone when he went bird hunting in 2004 to show affinity with rural voters.
Lesson 4: Be relatable, even if you’re not.
Make clear that you understand voters and relate to their lives. A self-financed candidate must breakthrough on the attribute of “understands people like me.” It’s why as mayor of New York City, Bloomberg would often forgo the NYPD motorcade and take the subway on his daily commute to City Hall.
Lesson 5: Drive innovation and push ideas.
A self-financed candidate needs to be creative and not fall into the trap of running a typical cookie-cutter campaign. They should use their money wisely and drive much needed innovation in campaigning as much as they plaster the airwaves with TV ads.
Look at the pioneering microtargeting work Bloomberg did to help first get elected in 2001 or the bold progressive before-its-time agenda championed by Corzine featuring issues like universal free college education versus a politics-as-usual opponent in Jim Florio. Self-financed candidates are different and they need to campaign differently to break through and succeed.
Bradley Honan & Elisabeth Zeche are cofounders and partners of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and data analytics firm.