NYC Comptroller hopefuls spent taxpayer cash like the free money it is

The first in an occasional series of columns on the art of strategic ad-buying

On November 23, 1928, Howard Cullman, the Finance Chairman for F.D.R.’s N.Y. State Gubernatorial campaign, reported a surplus of $35, which could be used for a party pending the 995 contributors’ approval. I recalled that note upon spotting “catering” expenses while skimming statements from the 2021 Democratic Primary Comptroller’s Candidate’s Campaign Finance Board.

A filing from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1928 campaign for New York governor. A simpler form for a simpler time. (Courtesy: Billy Sternberg archives)

That $35 in 1928 is worth $580 today. It would buy a 6-foot hero or two. But given it came from municipally matched campaign funds, more New Yorkers would be entitled to a bite. I happen to have copies of F.D.R.’s 1928 campaign spending summary because my grandfather, Maurice Bloch, managed the campaign. It’s all of three pages long. I learned years later that Bloch headed Albany’s Publicity Bureau (read: Democratic Party movies). F.D.R’s. campaign spending summary is crystal clear compared to today’s CFB filings. His expenses are broken out as Office, Finance, Publicity, Upstate Tour, Foreign Literature and others. Today, expenditures are listed alphabetically and the names assigned to CFB expenditures cover lots of ground. If filings were split into A) Ballot Compliance and B) Campaign Discretionary, expenses would be readily recognizable. I see candidates spending for “outreach;” whatever that means.

 

Eight candidates for Comptroller spent more than $1 million on their campaigns last year. The two leading Democratic Primary finishers, Comptroller Brad Lander and former Council Speaker Corey Johnson, spent more public funds than the 3rd through 7th candidates combined. Zack Ischol, finishing in eighth place, reports his TV buying through Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s wunderkind. Ischol spent $3,333,400, with $2,285,334 coming from taxpayer dollars. He won 3.2% of the primary vote per The Times. His cost per percent of his vote was over $1 million. And given the number of his TV ads I spotted, his campaign wasted about $.65 of CFB funds for every dollar they spent. Ischol and the others left hundreds of thousands of public funds on the table.

Six different candidates were on The Price Is Right and other broadcast shows that their consultants prefer. Since two-thirds of Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 11’s broadcast signal is out of the geography of our municipal campaign, our CFO wannabes flooded broadcast TV and got a 26% return on eligible Democratic turn-out. If six of the eight candidates who bought broadcast TV spent 100% of their discretionary funds on broadcast TV, they’d have thrown away 43.3%, or $7,865,000 in total. Seventy five percent of total spending comes from public funds. Sixty five percent of that is wasted outside the city boundaries on broadcast TV. Not counting TV’s Lilliputian ratings, my guess is that total waste on broadcast TV was in the area of $3,900,000, or 21.5%. Comptroller Lander bought so much broadcast TV that if Democrats weren’t polling for Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez Upstate, on Long Island, in Connecticut and out in Jersey, they should have been.

Reshma Patel didn’t prevail in her 2021 race for NYC Comptroller but her efficient spending and over-performance bode well for future runs.

When strategists use the phrase “Prime Voters,” what do they mean? There are still hundreds of channels and all of them attract ad dollars. Prime Voters in audiences of TV shows that index higher than TV’s Prime Voter average aren’t more likely to vote than Prime Voters in the audiences of TV shows that index lower than TV’s total Prime Voter average. Candidates need to reach all likely voters before Election Day. Because City Hall consultants buy “Prime Voters” from the same shows, the candidates’ ads were running “piggybacked,” blurring lines of those running whether Mayor, D.A., or Comptroller that DeWalt couldn’t drill a message through that noise. As more candidates are attracted to run in municipal primaries because of Campaign Finance Board financing, their cost to have consultants construct pro forma campaign packages increases.

Congratulations to State Senator Kevin Parker and newcomer Reshma Patel. Neither wasted a dime geographically. Parker’s filings listed TV with Spectrum cable. Patel, with the same funds as Parker, showed no TV. Patel, a below the radar Club President ran from my District, as things turned out, and Parker (who I know) were the seventh and eighth $1 million spenders. Both campaigned smarter than Ischol, who spent over twice as much as them combined. Parker and Patel split 11% of the vote while Ischol got 3.3%. Parker finished fourth in the cost per per-cent race. Patel finished just behind him, yet nearly 30% more efficient that her closes competitors. I saw Michelle Caruso-Cabrera on broadcast TV big time. Yet seemingly she wasted the least public funds. Since her fame came from CNBC, I’d suspect she spent a bit more on cable. Her campaign paid the lowest cost per percent of vote share, nosing out Lander and Johnson.

But for me it is Patel, the first South Asian woman to run citywide, who should be put under a microscope. I realize it’s out of NY’s geography, but did her consultant consider Indian TV News; those with satellite dishes along the BQE? Local inserts may or may not be available. She probably could have had that audience to herself and it’s likely the spots would have been very affordable.

The demands of the Democratic primary TV buying season are such that long ago one consultant confided in me, “I don’t even have time to do what I’m doing now.” But Patel’s filing doesn’t seem to list International TV if it’s available at all. F.D.R.’s 1928, campaign had a Foreign Literature Bureau. But, he was surrounded by Tammany’s top campaign advisors, not independent consultants.

By Billy Sternberg

Billy Sternberg, a graduate of Syracuse University's Newhouse Communications School, has produced two short films explaining the link between his grandfather, Maurice Bloch, F.D.R. and Judge Crater.