Do expensive campaigns win elections?

Running a successful campaign isn’t cheap – and it may be getting more expensive.

In Osceola County, expenses for the five major local races that took place this week totaled more than $395,000, with thousands more in contributions filed with the Supervisor of Elections.

The most expensive local campaign this year was run by Osceola County Commissioner for district 2, Viviana Janer, who spent $152,475 and received an additional $27,000 in contributions.

The spending seemed to pay off, though – Janer defeated her Republican opponent Wanda Rentas by a landslide with 70 percent of the vote. Rentas’ campaign cost $11,952 in comparison (Janer outspent her by more than 12-to-1.)

But Janer, who will now serve a second term on the five-person board, didn’t spend nearly as much when she ran the first time in 2014. In fact, she only spent about $31,034 – nearly five times less than this year.

A national trend in Osceola County

That’s not to say Janer’s campaign is unusually expensive compared to others across the country. One research study found that the cost to run a successful municipal council campaign in a major American city averaged between $112,512 tp $193,732, according to a 2016 study conducted at the University of Washington Bothell. Mayoral campaigns in big cities like Chicago tend much more expensive, the study found.

It’s Osceola County Commission races that tend to be the priciest, and Janer’s spending isn’t unusual (though it is the most costly county campaign run in the last four years).

In 2016, sitting County Commissioners Brandon Arrington and Fred Hawkins Jr. each spent over $125,000 and Peggy Choudhry spent just under $100,000.

Does spending more guarantee victory?

Out of the five major local elections held in Osceola County this week, four winners outspent the losers – and usually by a lot. Incumbents tended to spend more money this time around then they did the first time they ran.

Cheryl Grieb, for instance, spent about $33,000 more in 2018 than when she first ran for County Commission in 2014.

Likewise, Dave Askew spent roughly three times more campaigning for re-election to his seat on the St. Cloud City Council.

Money may not be everything

But they say money can’t buy everything, and the trite phase holds some truth for local campaigns, too.

When two newcomers were pitted against each other in the Kissimmee City seat 2 race this year, it was Felix Ortiz who came out the victor, despite spending about 65 percent less on his campaign than opponent Andrew Jeng.

In this case, the win may be due to visibility. As the owner of 3 Sisters Speakeasy, a popular downtown Kissimmee eatery, Ortiz’s campaign enjoyed a lot of free exposure and advertising, with pamphlets on restaurant tables and wait staff donning black and white “Vote For Ortiz” t-shirts in the weeks prior to Election Day.

A similar thrifty campaign win took place in August when two newcomers – Teresa Castillo and Shel Hart – went head-to-head for an empty district 1 school board seat.

Castillo won the race, having spent just $5,448, compared to Hart who spent $17,550.

Castillo said she attributes the win to a grassroots “boots on the ground” strategy.

“I knew I didn’t have as much money to work with,” she said. “I knew I was going to have to work five times harder to win.”

The first-time elected official utilized free advertising like social media and took advantage of chances to speak at debates, forums and meet-and-greets. She also campaigned hard door-to-door.

“It was all a matter of out working the money,” said Castillo, who will assume her new spot on the school board later this month. “And it worked.”