Some big spenders in Los Angeles elections soared. Others flopped

Conventional wisdom says the best-funded candidate wins, but in L.A. the opposite frequently occurs

Illustration of money being put into a city hall piggybank, with white background


In the March 5 election, Adrin Nazarian spent $790,000 on his run for the Los Angeles District 2 City Council seat. The former state Assembly member scored hundreds of $900 donations, the maximum someone can give to an L.A. council candidate.


Miguel Santiago was also well-fortified. The current Assembly member dropped $616,000 in the effort to win the District 14 City Council seat, according to financial disclosures filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.


The outlays were similar, but the results were not: Nazarian finished first in his race with 37.2% of the vote, and advanced to a November runoff. Santiago notched 21.3%, coming in third. His campaign is over.


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A total of 31 individuals were running for seven council seats. Nazarian spent the most money, and Santiago had the third-greatest expenditure total. The results reveal an oft-overlooked truism of Los Angeles politics: having the biggest war chest is no guarantee of victory, or even of making it out of the primary (if no one earns 50% of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a runoff).


Consider this chart showing how much money the 10 biggest spenders dropped, and where they ended up (totals are through Feb. 28, the latest day available, and do not include “independent expenditures,” or funding from outside groups).


Table of candidates who spent the most in the 2024 LA City elections in March, and how they fared


This may go counter to conventional wisdom, but in Los Angeles it is not an anomaly. After the 2022 elections, Crosstown reported that of the 11 city races in that cycle, the person with less money won six times.


That included Karen Bass, who during the primary and general election spent $9.8 million in her bid to become mayor, according to Ethics Commission disclosures. Businessman Rick Caruso spent $109 million on his failed effort.


The lane matters

There are many reasons why a well-funded candidate can soar or flop, or why someone with limited financial resources bests an opponent with a bigger bank balance. Often the result reflects how voters feel about the person running. 


Other times, on a crowded ballot, candidates with similar stances compete against each other for a pool of voters. This can open a “lane” for someone with a different and distinct ideology. Think how Republican Steve Garvey advanced to the U.S. Senate runoff against Adam Schiff, while well-regarded Democrats Katie Porter and Barbara Lee finished third and fourth, respectively (Schiff’s well-documented ad campaign also played a role).


An effective grass-roots campaign powered by volunteers rather than paid staff can help someone stand out. That may have been what occurred in District 2, where progressive candidate Jillian Burgos spent just $63,000, but had an active network of left-leaning supporters. She finished with 22.4% of the returns. That put her second in the seven-person field, ahead of the far-better funded Sam Kbushyan and Manny Gonez.


Bar chart showing how much leading candidates spent on the LA City Council District 2 race.


In the council elections, people in four races exceeded 50% and won outright. Three other races will progress to a second round. Burgos had less financial support than anyone who was victorious or made the runoff.


How we did it: We examined campaign expenditure totals filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. These are through Feb. 28, 2024, and may change as later reports are filed. We also examined vote totals from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. Learn more about our data here.


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