As the results became clear in the race for Milwaukee County Executive, unsuccessful challenger Chris Larson took the stage and thanked his supporters.
Larson, a Democratic state senator from Milwaukee, lost April 5, 2016 to incumbent Chris Abele by a 55 to 44 percent margin. In his concession speech, Larson said his campaign was a success, in part, because it made Abele more responsive and willing to listen to concerns of residents.
He then mentioned a key element in the race: money.
Abele largely paid for his own campaign, taking in only a handful of contributions. And records showed he spent an estimated $3.5 million on the campaign between July of 2015 and two weeks before Election Day. At that point, he also had $642,618 in cash on hand.
"Big money may have won the battle, but they haven't won the war," said Larson.
He then offered a calculation to illustrate the spending disparity.
"For the votes that we got, I think we spent, on average, two bucks a pop. Compared to 42 bucks from the other guy," Larson said in remarks carried on live television.
That’s quite a gap.
During the campaign, Larson regularly told audiences that he was being outspent by Abele by 20 to one. But in his concession speech, Larson put an even bigger figure on the gap.
Was he right?
Doing the math
Let’s work some numbers, based on the vote totals and campaign finance reports on file with the Milwaukee County Elections Commission.
Abele: Reports show that between July 2015 and March 21, 2016, his campaign spent just over $3.5 million. Unofficial returns from the general election show Abele received 156,524 votes. That comes to $22.36 per vote.
(A footnote: Abele’s reports show about $5.6 million in personal loans to his campaign, but some of those loans go back as far as 2010 and his first run for the office. That figure would amount to $35.77 per vote, but we are using the narrower time frame to focus on this election.)
Larson: Reports show that in the same pre-election time frame, Larson spent $216,243. Virtually all of that came from individual contributors, although Larson loaned his campaign $10,000 on March 21, 2016. He received 125,292 votes, so he spent about $1.72 per vote.
So, it’s clear Larson was outspent by a major amount -- just not the amount he cited.
"Our number-crunching showed that Abele spent $24-25 a vote," Larson campaign manager Josh Kilroy said in an email. "In the dim lighting and fraught emotions, I suspect Larson inverted the numbers."
The final reports showing last-minute spending do not have to be filed until July of 2016. So, the final dollar-per-vote number -- on both sides -- will be higher.
Would that spending make a difference?
A key indication of the final weeks’ spending -- television advertising buys -- can be found in reports filed by local TV stations with the Federal Communications Commission.
The Abele campaign spent or planned to spend about $195,000 on 482 television spots in the window from March 21 to the election, according to the reports, which are prepared before the ads aired and subject to revision.
If you take the known spending by Abele -- the money already spent plus the final batch of TV ads -- it comes to $3,695,000, or $23.60 per vote.
In addition to the TV ads, Abele sent out numerous direct mail fliers. Also, many other payments to staff and consultants, bonuses and bills from vendors come in after the election.
The tally would rise to about $26 per vote if Abele spent the full $642,618 in cash on hand -- and didn’t pour any more of money into the race.
But there are no indications the spending would end up at $40 per vote, as Larson claimed.
And, in any case, just as Larson could only rely on known information in making his claim, we must base our rating on information available at the time.
In conceding defeat, Larson claimed he spent about $2 per vote received while Abele spent $42.
Our calculation shows the gap, based on current reports, is more like $26 to $1.70 -- but it will grow somewhat by the time final reports are filed in July. Larson’s broader point about being vastly outspent was correct. Although he was right on the concept, he was far off on the numbers.
We rate his claim False.