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You risk blowing your savings on a lifetime supply of customised pens when you run for election

How much you spend on your campaign still plays a large role in determining whether you win a seat , writes Roslyn Fuller.

THE US AND Irish elections have more in common than just timing. ‘Money in politics’ may be a well-worn mantra in the USA, but few are fully aware of the significant role that King Cash plays in Irish elections.

That’s partly because, unlike the USA, we do have spending caps (currently set at a maximum of €45,200 per candidate in a 5-seater) and Irish parties receive funding from the state in accordance with how well they polled in the last election.

Candidates are also allowed to claw back €8,700 worth of election expenses if they poll above one-quarter of the quota – as 327 candidates did in the last general election.

It’s a pretty generous system, but even so, how much you spend on your campaign still plays a large role in determining whether you will win a seat, and there are large discrepancies in what established and non-established candidates tend to spend.

Costs add up 

In the last general election, unsuccessful candidates spent an average of €10,215, while successful candidates spent nearly double that, averaging €18,746 on their campaigns. Research by Michael Marsh and Kenneth Benoit confirms this pattern on the local level, finding that a spending jump from €500 to €1,000 by a local election candidate increased first-preference votes by 1.27%, while a spending increase from €500 to €5,000 increased first-preference votes by 4.20%.

So, what do candidates shell out on? I’m running as a first-time candidate and these are some of the offers that have landed in my inbox over the past few weeks:

  • Letter posted to every household in the constituency: €700
  • Posters: ca. €700 for 100 posters
  • Leaflets: depends on your print-run, but 20,000 cost about €800
  • Official photo: €60
  • Flying flags: €299 per flag
  • PVC Banner: €140-169
  • Bus shelter poster: €5.65 per poster
  • Promotional video: €492 for a 90-second film
  • CityPost Guide: €899 for a full-page feature
  • Buttons: €1,033 for 5000
  • Stickers: €243 for 5000
  • Pens: €2,583 for 5000
  • Bulk text messaging: €516 for 10,000 texts
  • Full car wrap: €1,469

Perhaps most alarmingly, I also received several offers to repress any unflattering information about me in internet search results, although an exact price was never put on this service.

After totalling everything up, it turns out I’ve already received just shy of €10,000 worth of unsolicited offers.

First-time candidates 

Like many first-time candidates, I didn’t even consider availing of the vast majority of these services. I’ve known people to finance campaigns from personal loans in the expectation that they’ll hit a quarter of the quota and claw back some of their expenses, but it’s a risky strategy for anyone who isn’t already well-established.

There aren’t too many people out there who are ready to fully embrace the possibility of missing the reimbursement quota by two votes after having blasted their savings on a lifetime supply of customised pens.

And even should you overcome that barrier and claw back €8,700 out of an average €18,746 successful spend, that still leaves you with a minimum of €10,000 to find. I say a ‘minimum’, because these declared expenditures only account for expenses incurred during the election period, i.e. between the dissolution of the Dáil and polling day.

Candidates are also allowed to exclude certain items, such as petrol, telephone bills, and drinks for the canvassing crew from their spending limits.

According to SIPO (Standards in Public Office Commission):

The exclusion of these items from the definition of election expenses is welcomed by most candidates and election agents as a means of allowing them to remain within their spending limits.

Election material doesn’t come for free 

That means that in this extremely short election period, a candidate in a 5-seater can spend nearly €2,000 per day, while racking up an unlimited petrol, phone and general catering bill, all the while coasting off the back of whatever promotional material they or their party happened to pump out over the last several months before the election was called.

Furthermore, if a party wants to up its spend, it can always run a sweeper candidate in the constituency, i.e. a second candidate that they know has no hope of being elected and whose transfers will largely accrue to the ‘main’ candidate. Technically, additional funding has to be spent on the sweeper, but if it ultimately rolls up to the main candidate, that’s a non-point.

The true spend on elections and on certain candidates is therefore much higher than it appears, while at the same time more cautious than one would think.

All this means is that even within our capped, state-subsidised system there is an in-built bias against poor candidates, new candidates, non-party candidates, and young candidates. Not only do they themselves rarely have much money to throw around, their friends don’t either. Now, if that just impacted politicians, no one would be crying a river, but it also affects voter choice.

The purpose of running a campaign is not to help parties or politicians, but rather to inform the voter of their choices. However, during the next three weeks, there are policies you will hear about thousands of times, and policies you won’t hear about at all. There will be absolutely no reason for that, except that the candidates promoting those policies didn’t happen to have the equivalent of the down payment of a house to gamble with on the election expenses market.

Election campaigns may well be an undignified mass grovelling accompanied by a waterfall of tacky trinkets, but it pays to remember, as country star Dolly Parton once put it, that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.

Dr Roslyn Fuller is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose, and an independent general election candidate for Dublin Fingal.

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