Special Election – Georgia HD 24: A detailed analysis of campaign contributions in a local special election

There are two special elections in Georgia tomorrow, to fill vacancies in the state legislature in the Atlanta area.  Neither district will see a change in party control, as the only candidates on the ballot in both districts are from the party of the former officeholder.  In Georgia HD 55 (Fulton County), former State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D) resigned after pleading guilty to tax fraud and no contest to wire and mail fraud.  Six Democratic candidates and an Independent are vying to replace him.  In Georgia HD 24 (Forsyth County), former State Rep. Mark Hamilton (R) resigned when he moved out-of-state.  Four Republicans are on the ballot to replace him.

If one only focuses on elections which can potentially change the partisan composition of a legislative body, these two contests would not be significant.  However, I chose to perform some in-depth and unique analysis on one of these two races, which might lead to new insights into voter behavior in similar local elections.

It is hard to understate the relationship between money and politics these days, especially at the national and state level.  Before any major candidate even files to appear on a ballot, he or she must demonstrate the ability to network with and receive contributions from enough donors to justify even undertaking the effort.  This makes sense due to the cost of media advertising and campaign consulting needed to get a candidate’s message to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of voters.

However, local campaigns are much less reliant on expensive media, and are centered on personal networking, voter engagement, and efforts to mobilize supporters to vote.  This is especially true when an election is truly local, that is, there is no national or dominant state election to constantly remind voters that Election Day is upon them.  These are precisely the issues faced by candidates in local special election and runoff campaigns.

One of the initial steps often taken when assessing a candidate is to examine his or her campaign finance reports to evaluate the extent of their support.  But in a local special election, that perhaps seems too simplistic.  So, for Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s State House District 24, I expanded my analysis of campaign contributions.

In a purely local campaign, it’s not enough to establish name recognition or even attract agreement with policy positions.  In order to win, a candidate must get voters to actually make the effort to vote for them.  This sounds obvious, of course, but it is actually quite an undertaking when we are talking about a special election in the middle of June.  Obviously, there are some regular, dedicated, citizens who vote in every election, no matter what.  But in today’s increasingly busy society, the number of those folks is likely dwindling.

And although yard signs and campaign mailers can help to increase one’s name recognition and awareness, my experience from local campaigns is that the best method of driving voters to the polls comes from committed supporters.  Those who truly support a candidate will usually make personal appeals to their neighbors, friends, and colleagues, asking them to make sure they take the effort to vote.  So, how does an elections analyst identify which campaign has such committed supporters?  Perhaps the answer is in their campaign finance report.  Obviously, people can passionately support a campaign without donating money.  But anyone familiar with even local candidates knows how critical financial support is to a campaign.  And, it stands to reason that those who do donate are likely to be those strong supporters of a candidate who can potentially drive turnout.

I reviewed the campaign finance reports filed by each of the four Republican candidates in Tuesday’s special election here in Forsyth County, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta.

CandidateNumber of Itemized
(> $100) Contributions
Dollar Amount of
Itemized (> $100) Contributions
Sheri Gilligan 15$ 7,200
Will Kremer 11$ 4,375
Ethan Underwood 23$ 21,275
David Van Sant 43$ 33,300

 

I then examined the mailing address for each listed donation and, one by one, determined the corresponding location of each.

CandidateNumber of unique
contributions from
addresses within HD 24
Number of unique
contributions from
addresses within
Forsyth County, but
outside HD 24
Sheri Gilligan78
Will Kremer00
Ethan Underwood64
David Van Sant34

[Note that since I am looking for unique donations and supporters, I disregarded multiple contributions from either the same person or the same address.]

As the above tables show, Sheri Gilligan raised just the third-most amount, but the addresses for all of her contributors are within Forsyth County.  Furthermore, she has the most number of campaign donors from within the district itself.

This would seem to be significant in what figures to be such a low-turnout election.  For example, here are the voter turnout statistics for the last four State Representative special elections in Georgia:

DistrictSpecial Election DateTotal Votes CastReg.
Voters
Turnout Pct.
HD 2Jan. 7, 20142, 82424, 18611.7 %
HD 22Jan. 7, 20142, 43733, 523 7.3 %
HD 50Jan. 6, 20152, 45727, 858 8.8 %
HD 120Jan. 6, 20155, 53132, 11817.2 %
HD 24June 16, 2015?34, 200?

The above data suggest that the total number of votes cast in HD 24 will be about 3,500.  It would also seem that a candidate will likely make at least the runoff if he or she obtains 1,000 votes.

To further analyze this data, I even examined it by individual precinct.  A map of Forsyth County, with both State House district and precinct boundaries, can be found here.

The breakdown of votes cast by precinct in last May’s primary election is as follows:

PrecinctRegistered Voters w/in
HD 24 as of May 20,
2014 Primary
Total votes cast in HD 24's
May 20, 2014 GOP
Primary
Percent Turnout
05-Coal Mountain 1,999 49324.7 %
07-Cumming 2,070 44621.5 %
10-Midway10,2332,01919.7 %
15-Heardsville 4,8661,00220.6 %
16-Otwell 7,8561,67521.3 %
29-Polo 5,0341,18423.5 %
Total32,0586,81921.3 %

And below, I’ve broken down the addresses of each candidate’s campaign contributions by precinct as well:

PrecinctSheri
Gilligan
Ethan
Underwood
David
Van Sant
05-Coal Mountain
07-Cumming112
10-Midway232
15-Heardsville1
16-Otwell1
29-Polo31

After researching, classifying, and analyzing all this information, what conclusions can be drawn?  Here are my observations:

  • The two vote-rich areas of HD 24 are likely to be precincts 10 (Midway) and 16 (Otwell), which comprise much of the middle of the district.  The three candidates who received contributions from within the district (Gilligan, Underwood, and Van Sant) all received money from multiple individuals and businesses in Midway, so I would expect that the votes from there will be split.
  • Surprisingly, only one campaign donation came from someone in Otwell precinct (to Gilligan).  One data point isn’t much to base a strong conclusion on – the method would be better tested with more data.   Perhaps this suggests that turnout in Otwell will be less than in the district as a whole.
  • Precinct 29 (Polo) is likely to produce the third-most amount of votes.  Here, Gilligan boasts more contributions than anyone (3), and she also received another from someone in the precinct, but just outside the HD 24 boundary.  This suggests she should run very strong here.
  • Underwood received the only contribution from an address in precinct 15 (Heardsville), which has almost as many voters as Polo.  Based on the address provided on his registration documents, it is also his home area.  I would expect him to finish first or second here.

Will these analyses prove predictive when the votes are counted on Tuesday?  I’m curious and hopeful, but guardedly so.  Firstly, voter behavior is both complicated and dynamic, and campaign donations are just one factor which indicate support for a particular candidate.  Secondly, as we all know, anything can happen in any given election.  But I believe there is potential in these methodologies, and I am looking forward to applying them to future campaigns, and refining them if they show promise.

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