No matter what the theories say, elections always come down to a choice between people. What prompts you to like one over the other--or dislike one less--may be predictable to pollsters and social scientists, but in the end it is the voter's choice. Except when the structure predetermines the choice.
If Los Angeles had not adopted public financing five years ago, we would not have had an election on Tuesday. Barbara Yaroslavsky and Nate Holden would have outspent their opponents in the primary by at least 2-1, giving the other candidates little opportunity to establish themselves in the voters' minds.
Money doesn't absolutely determine the outcome, but it sure comes close. Closer, in fact, than the theorists would like to admit.
We used to believe that we could have competitive elections if the voters just knew who the candidates were. Name recognition was the base. If the voters can't identify the name of the challenger in a November race by Labor Day, odds are the challenger is going to remain anonymous on election day. That is why more than 95% of incumbents are reelected.
Barbara Yaroslavsky was not an incumbent in the race to fill the City Council seat vacated by her husband, but she might just as well have been. She was, in fact, better off than an incumbent, because her husband Zev, now a county supervisor, was going to be in office no matter who won. That reality was a critical disincentive for those who do business with the city (and county) to give to her opponents. I moderated a debate of all of the 5th District candidates a few days before the primary, and everyone except Barbara Yaroslavsky said that they would not accept money from lobbyists. Of course not. They couldn't get money from lobbyists--not if the lobbyists wanted to continue doing business in town.
Hence the value of public funding. None of the incumbents accepted it because they didn't need it, although Holden tried to get it for the general election after realizing that his refusal to apply for it didn't prevent his opponent from qualifying.
Once public funds brought a greater measure of parity in the two races where challengers qualified for public funding, the front-runners and their supporters accused them of wasting taxpayers' money, of playing politics as usual. If public financing is anything, it is not politics as usual. It is not the politics of the rich or well-connected. It gives a priority to small donations because only individual contributions of up to $250 are matched. And it requires limits on spending, including how much the candidate can chip in of his or her own money.
Still, there is a gnawing anxiety about the theory of public financing that its advocates have not quite resolved. The presumption that elections are competitive if the contenders are known is backed up by a lot of data. So, the advocates argue, what is needed is a floor--enough funding to get your name known. Once the voters know who you are, they can take it from there. The favorite example for many years was Ted Kennedy: He did not need to spend money because everyone knew who he was and they didn't need help in making up their minds when voting. It is the floor that public financing provides; the ceiling is left to take care of itself.
The problem is that, except for the smallest elections such as council districts, where the candidates can actually go door-to-door and meet the voters, the theory doesn't seem to work anymore. The structure of our elections is such that voters don't get to know the candidates. The more money there is, the more the voters will be inundated with slick mailers and radio and television ads. The image projected by the campaign can overpower our capacity to find out who the candidate really is, unless the free media run their own stories, which is less and less likely the lower you go on the electoral ladder.
Public financing doesn't solve the problem of candidates buying elections. It can happen. It does make it harder, however. And, with more and more public offices held by wealthy men and women, public financing is perhaps the only chance left for free and open elections--critical conditions of a free society.
Tuesday's election proved the value of public financing at the first rung of the electoral ladder. If only private money had been involved, Barbara Yaroslavsky and Nate Holden would have been elected in May. We are all better served when the voters make the choice on their own.