Friday, July 10, 2009

Small vs. Large Campaigns in Today’s Elections

Part 3 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

It doesn’t take a political scientist to know that there are big differences between larger and smaller races. From the bigger turnout to saturated ad markets, large statewide and national campaigns completely overshadow local ones.

But despite the lack of attention from the voters and media, there are some real pluses to running a smaller campaign.

For one thing, a candidate in a small race can literally talk to every single voter before the election - sometimes more than once! Nothing is as effective as a face-to-face connection between a voter and a candidate. Larger campaigns cannot do that because it just isn’t practical - there are too many people! So they turn to TV and radio ads, direct mail, and robo-calls out of necessity.

It all began when progressive reforms to dismantle political machines took effect in the 20th Century. As it happened, campaigns began to shift from being party-centered to candidate-centered. The result was that the traditional mass volunteer base that the parties relied on diminished, leaving candidate-centered campaigns with less man-power.

So began what Professor J. Cherie Strachan refers to as the “professionalization” of elections: larger campaigns began to rely more and more on modern forms of communication (radio, television, and later internet) and other sophisticated marketing tactics. Meanwhile, smaller campaigns could continue the traditional way of campaigning because they never required a lot of man-power in the first place.

Except that this appears to be changing. More and more often, smaller campaigns are beginning to employ the same sophisticated tactics as the larger ones - targeted direct mail, radio ads, polls, and even TV spots. A survey Strachan conducted of mayoral candidates nationally found that 88% used one or more of these tactics for their campaigns.

Why are they doing this when they can just meet the voters personally?

In her book, High-Tech Grass Roots, Strachan says

“One of the best predictors of whether an innovation will be adopted is the perceived relative advantage it provides over the idea it supersedes…In this case, local government candidates would consider using sophisticated tactics when lower initial cost and the improved ability to target desired voters enhanced their perceptions of the relative advantage that such tactics could provide.”

It’s not just a perceived advantage - it’s real. Knocking on doors is time-consuming for a candidate. When you can narrow down voters by their likeliness to vote (and more importantly, their likeliness to vote for you) with a voter file, you can save a considerable amount of time meeting them.

Then, rather than going back to their house 3 or 4 times throughout the campaign, you can send them a mail piece addressing their specific political concerns and maybe meet them in person only twice.

And when you’re able to raise the money, a poll can go a long way towards solidifying your message and overcoming your opponent. TV or radio ads, if you can afford them, can help foster an image of your legitimacy as a politician.

And looking like the guys on the national stage is becoming easier (and in many cases, cheaper) than ever. Campaign websites are easy for interested voters to access while email and social networking services like Facebook and Twitter can keep your supporters up-to-date on fundraisers, field events, and more.

So long as these “professional” tactics are supplemented with the most effective campaign tactic - meeting voters in person - small race candidates should be encouraged to use them.

Ultimately, the methods pursued will come down to cost-benefit analysis (“how much money can I raise?” “what can I get with that money?” “how many votes would doing those things actually get me?”) and no two campaigns are exactly the same. However, smaller campaigns across the country are all beginning to look more and more like the bigger ones in terms of strategy and tactics - and in order to run for a smaller seat it’s becoming a greater necessity too.

Come back Tuesday for Part 4: Fundraising!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Did a Chaotic Fundraiser Help a Congressional Candidate?

Last week we did a post on a fundraiser-gone-wrong for Congressional candidate Francine Busby in which donors got pepper-sprayed by the cops and the host was arrested on suspicion of battery on a peace officer.

At the end of the post, we said “we can’t even imagine the headache this story will cause the Busby campaign staff.”

Well, maybe not.

According to a new article in Politico today, “the buzz surrounding the episode has suddenly breathed life into her campaign.”

She had already run unsuccessfully three times for the San Diego-area seat held by Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), and national Democratic strategists didn’t expect this time would be any different…

…Now, for better or for worse, Busby is suddenly in the limelight again. Progressives have seized on the incident as an example of law enforcement gone wild, and Busby herself has used it to draw attention to her campaign.

The controversy surrounding the bizarre incident has sparked a liberal uproar. Keith Olbermann named the arresting officer the “Worst Person in the World” one night, and the ACLU said the episode “speaks to a serious lack of law enforcement restraint.”

LGBT activists have been one of the most supportive base groups following the incident - the host herself is a lesbian and the man who called the police on the group of donors appears to be fairly homophobic.

“What it has done is given me a lot more attention and press and media than we ever would have expected at this point in time,” Busby said in an interview with POLITICO. “I’ve met thousands of people as a result of this process. There’s a lot of personal feelings about this.”

Of course, the national spotlight won’t put her on top with the voters - and that’s what elections are all about. The purpose of a campaign is to win and there are no silver medals in American politics.

In fact, that’s what scares quite a few Democrats in southern California.

Some California Democratic operatives who believe Bilbray’s seat is highly winnable worry that Busby isn’t a Democrat who can win in the Republican-leaning 50th District — and that the image of a liberal Democrat taking on area law enforcement isn’t one that will pay political dividends for the party…

…Few would argue that the seat is out of reach for Democrats. Although George W. Bush twice carried the district comfortably, Barack Obama carried it with 51 percent of the vote in 2008 — and local Democratic voter registration rolls have surged in recent years…

…[Her primary opponent, attorney Tracey Emblem, says] “She has run before, and the voters rejected her. You’ve got to stay focused on the issues. Voters don’t want to hear about ruckuses.”

But even if she’s not directly getting votes out of this incident, it’s helping her with another important campaign necessity - money.

Aside from the media attention, Busby has found that the incident is proving to be a boon to her fundraising efforts.

Not long after [the disastrous fundraiser], she blasted an e-mail to her supporters, telling Democratic donors that her campaign “is drawing serious right-wing fire.” She portrayed the police action as a serious civil rights violation and said she was going to “fight for the truth, fight to defend our civil rights, fight to defend free speech and democracy.”

“It’s the eleventh hour to show that you have the courage and commitment to stand with me against the strong forces that are gathering against us,” Busby wrote. “I am going to fight even harder to stop this hateful intimidation. I hope that I can count on you to fight this battle with me.”

Busby said she expects to raise nearly $200,000 in the second quarter — much of it since the controversy erupted — giving her a strong head start in the Democratic primary.

Finding support all over the country will bring her the financial resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. That’s how this fiasco will help.

Yet it won’t put her over the top. Busby is still going to need to do everything necessary of her to achieve what matters most - winning.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Congressman Boehner and a Bloodhound Search for Jobs

House Minority Leader John Boehner has recently released a strange video on YouTube for his Congressional website. In it he and his dog go on a search for jobs created under the stimulus bill.

Remember the Sedition Act of 1798 from the history textbooks? It made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. Ever since it was repealed following the election of Thomas Jefferson, Americans have been cautious to reinstate such an affront to the First Amendment.

While that's good for protecting our civil liberties, the downside of it is there is no “truth in advertising” law for politics, and a politician can literally say whatever he or she wants to attack a policy or opponent. With most modern political advertising, claims will be backed up with cited source material (newspaper articles, government reports, etc.) - something Boehner and Ellie Mae failed to do.

The most glaring point in the ad where there was no citation was the claim that AIG was a big recipient of stimulus money. There was no citation because it simply wasn’t true - AIG did not receive money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, they received money from a Federal Reserve move and the Bush-backed Trouble Asset Relief Program (both of which happened last year, before Obama was even President).

John Boehner knows this.

Next he talks about a stimulus project in Wisconsin that created “no jobs” at Rusty’s Backwater Saloon. Well, of course there was a job for the guys that built the bridge, but citations aren’t required, so why throw that information out there? Then he mentions North Carolina, where evidently the only job created was one for wasting your money.

In fact, Wisconsin is receiving more than $3.5 billion to save or create 70,000 over the next two years according to current estimates. North Carolina is receiving more than $5.6 billion to save or create 105,000 jobs, and Boehner’s home state of Ohio is getting $7.5 billion to save or create 133,000 jobs.

And according to a GAO report from April, when it was written North Carolina had already put 53 infrastructure projects in motion. Ohio had begun to award contracts for another 149. Can Boehner honestly say there will be no jobs there?

The bulk of the GAO report, however, explains the critical (and lengthy) process of ensuring accountability on the part of contractors, states, and organizations receiving stimulus money. That’s why more jobs haven’t been created via the stimulus since it was passed. It’s always been made clear that the stimulus would take a while, and certainly longer than just five months.

Again, Boehner knows this - he’s just playing politics.

The lesson here is what to look out for when you see a political ad. Does the ad make significant claims about another politician or a policy? If so, make sure those claims are cited. If not, there’s not much reason to assume it isn’t false advertising.

Campaign Updates (7/8/09)


The Franken-Coleman race is finally over and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) was sworn in yesterday. Below is the oath he took.


News today is that Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D-IL) will not be running for Senate against Richard Burris (or for governor against Pat Quinn) who has bad Blagojevich ties that could hurt him in 2010.

Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post makes some predictions as to who will seek the seat now:

"With Madigan out of the Senate race, expect businessman Chris Kennedy to quickly announce his candidacy, joining state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in the Democratic primary. Madigan's no-go decision also makes it far more likely that Rep. Mark Kirk, by far Republicans strongest candidate, will make the race."

Madigan’s decision is expected to be made public later today.


Conservative Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio has simply not raised a lot of money lately. Last quarter he raised about a tenth of what moderate primary opponent Charlie Crist expects to raise.

Meanwhile, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) raised a good $1.2 million for his Senate bid. As he told supporters “No other non-incumbent Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate today is raising the funds necessary to grow the movement that we are building together.” Of course, he still fell far short of Crist, who believes he raised about $3 million for the quarter.

New Jersey

The predictably ugly gubernatorial race is heating up. Seriously-at-risk incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) released this ad against GOP opponent Chris Christie recently.

This comes after two fairly effective ads from the Republican Governors Association launched against Corzine last month.

New Hampshire

Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is resigning to pursue a run for Senate to replace the retiring Judd Gregg (and, yes, Democrats are now comparing her to Palin for it).

This will be a closely watched race, no doubt, because of the prospects Democrats have of eliminating the GOP from New England, at least in Congressional races.

State Rep. Jim Splaine (D-Portsmouth) lays out a good analysis of Ayotte’s chances of winning - both the pros and cons for her candidacy.


Big news from the Commonwealth today (and bad news for Democrats) - Republican Bob McDonnell has expanded his lead over Democrat Creigh Deeds to 49% - 43%. It appears that the post-primary hype for Deeds has slowed down.

Among independents, McDonnell leads 54% - 33%, a serious disadvantage for the Deeds campaign. Luckily the vast majority of Democrats have thrown their support for Deeds now in the general election - but the harsh and ugly three-way gubernatorial Democratic primary may have been a turn-off to independents.

Additionally, Republicans lead Democrats in all three statewide races this year.

Interest Groups Playing Nice?

It’s not everyday you see an interest group making an issue ad that’s supportive of a politician - typically they end with something along the lines of “call _____ and tell him/her to stop being such a jerk.”

But Americans United for Change is airing an unusually friendly ad for House members that supported the recent climate bill, asking voters to thank them for their decision.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Phone Banking for the Modern Political Campaign

Part 2 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

According to author and political strategist Joe Garecht, there are five reasons for campaigns to use phone banks: as a follow-up for the campaign’s direct mail; for identifying which voters are committed to which candidate; getting out the vote; fundraising calls; and to get out your rapid response to the opponent’s attacks.

While all of these are important reasons to have a phone bank, the most obvious reason is simple: persuasion. Although the process requires either a lot of money or a lot of volunteers, phone banking can be one of the most effective forms of persuasion because it involves direct, two-way contact between the campaign and the voter. This is especially true when it’s done by volunteers.

Of course, little beats door-to-door canvassing, but in rural areas where it’s hard to get around or urban areas which consist of inaccessible apartment buildings, calling the voters is your best option.

In fact, an emphasis on voter contact went a long way towards President Obama’s impressive victory last year. As we found when examining the exit polls last year, the Obama campaign made as much as 37% more voter contact than McCain’s team did.

Yet with the technological revolution of the past two decades, the way campaigns communicate with voters on the phone is changing.

But how?

As you probably know, with the rise of cell phones, many Americans no longer bother keeping land lines. For a while – and even today in some states – finding cell numbers for phone banks was difficult and the databases campaigns used were incomplete.

But with new voters (who are largely behind the decline of land lines) come new voter registration forms complete with cell numbers that literally – by law – can stick with a person for life if he or she so chooses. Campaigns that register voters can collect these numbers and enter them into the party’s database. Hence, this particular problem is slowly fading away.

Then there was the problem of the call itself. As Campaigns and Elections wrote in 2002, it makes sense to call a voter on their cell phone “only if you want voters angry because your campaign wasted their air time and cost them money.”

Luckily the so-called “invisible hand of the free market” has been taking care of that problem – more and more cell phone companies have stopped charging their customers for incoming calls.

What the tech-age has done to phone banking is made it easier for campaigns – sort of.

In 2006, an article posted on the website for Democratic strategists Paul and Marty Stone (who specialize in phone communications) described the way campaigns can now do phone banks:

Campaigners for Patrick Murphy were staring the May 16 Democratic primary in the teeth. In 48 hours, voters in Pennsylvania's 8th District would go to the polls. There were plenty of volunteers to make get-out-the-vote calls, but not enough phones.

It was May 14, and a Murphy staffer took a suitcase into the basement of a campaign volunteer's home in Bucks County. He unzipped the bag and pulled out a dozen telephones, plugged them into a computer, and within five minutes, the group began using the Internet to call local voters.

There were no expensive phone line deposits to pay the local telephone company. No waiting for the telephone company installer or promises he would be there between 8 a.m. and noon or 1 and 5 p.m. two weeks down the road, when it would be too late.

A handful of volunteers and staffers made 2,000 get-out-the-vote calls in two days, and Murphy won with nearly two-thirds of the vote against his Democratic challenger.

Of course, Marty Stone himself stresses that when campaigns can, they should stick to traditional land lines because internet phones and mobiles just don’t deliver the same quality. But in high-pressure situations or for rural towns that can’t get the same staff attention as the bigger cities, the internet lines and cell phones can be a great way to streamline scarce campaign resources.

And then there is the way the Obama campaign made new innovations to an old concept. Not only did they start getting volunteers in mass from states like California calling voters in states like Ohio, but they also figured out ways to get activists that otherwise couldn’t volunteer to make calls from home.

From an interesting Huffington Post article on phone banking last year:

If you're an expat like Charley James, an American living in Toronto, Canada, who wants to volunteer for a favorite candidate, a virtual phone bank is the way to go.

James contacted the Obama campaign by signing up online. When he has a few free hours after work, he logs in, receives a list of names, a script and a report form and starts calling the all-important Ohio voters. He calls undecided and likely voters and registered Democrats.

He emails his report into the campaign and from there, other data entry volunteers --- either online or at an Obama office --- merge the information into the Obama 'Mother Brain' that scrubs voter data --- updating and cleaning up their voter information database crucial for the Election Day GOTV efforts and setting the stage for the next campaign cycle.

The use of technology like mass texting and online phone banks has been key to Sen. Obama's startling wins during the primary against better-known rivals, who also employed digital-tech outreach but not as efficiently or effectively.

Of course, some campaigns will continue to avoid such innovations, and for valid reasons. As political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber observed in their 2004 book, Get Out the Vote!:

“In principle, you can coordinate a phone bank in a decentralized manner, with callers working from home. Although less expensive, this type of arrangement creates potentially serious supervisory problems. Even if the callers are doing their work, you cannot monitor whether they are staying “on message” and conveying the proper tone. For this reason, most campaigns prefer to have phone bank volunteers make their calls from a central location.”

Yet with campaigns being as competitive as ever, their operatives are going to continue to walk a fine line between the traditional safeties of sound quality and centralized volunteers and the 21st Century realities of fast-paced, high-pressure operations that require a block of decentralized supporters.

According to political scientist and campaigns expert Bob Roberts, future campaigns will require flexibility – making use of multiple techniques to get to voters rather than relying on the traditional standbys. "That's the dilemma all campaigns are facing now," he says.

And he’s exactly right.

Come back Friday for Part 3 of the series - Small vs. Large Campaigns.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What is Palin’s Future Now?

To everyone’s surprise - including many people closest to her - Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) announced Friday that she would soon be resigning.

Immediately - and to no one’s surprise - a firestorm of media speculation started as to why she chose to leave and what it meant for her political future.

A week ago today, our own survey of our readers found that Palin was thought to be the Number One Contender for the GOP nomination in 2012. Her Friday announcement certainly seemed to hint at a presidential campaign, but as many have noted, it may have killed any hope she had.

From an article in Politico:

[There have been] brutal reviews from many Republicans, who believe that quitting mid-term in the fashion she did amounts to political suicide.

“There is just no good way to say quitting has made her more qualified to run for higher office,” said veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger.

What reasons did Palin have to resign?

Palin’s own explanations are anything but clear. She gave a now-famous basketball analogy of knowing when to “pass the ball” to claim it was best for Alaska.

Then in a Facebook response to her critics, she said

“The response in the main stream media has been most predictable, ironic, and as always, detached from the lives of ordinary Americans who are sick of the “politics of personal destruction”. How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it’s about country. And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make. But every American understands what it takes to make a decision because it’s right for all, including your family.”

What’s more obvious is that by resigning she can make a lot of money off the speaking circuit - enough to support her family for life while giving her enough exposure to build support for a 2012 campaign in the 48 lower states. Furthermore, she’s been giving subtle hints beyond the so-called “higher calling”.

Journalist Geoffrey Dunn (who’s currently writing a book on Palin) wrote for the Huffington Post this weekend:

One of my favorite lies spewed by Palin today in yet another poorly scripted speech was that she campaigned for governor "four years ago...," when she, in fact, ran for governor three years ago and held her position for little more than two-and-half years. It's the little lies she always tells, the twists of truth, the distortions. Four years sounds like nearly a full term; three feels incomplete. So why not just call it four?

What’s less obvious is her declining popularity in Alaska - much of it coming from Republicans.

From Dunn’s article:

She has alienated virtually all the key legislators in her own party -- that's right, Republicans -- and had failed to move any key legislation forward since her return to Alaska from the national campaign trail last November.

In fact, her bizarre appointment for Attorney General, Wayne Anthony Ross, was rejected nearly unanimously by the state legislature -- a first in Alaskan history. Even in respect to energy policy, her supposed bailiwick, she has been categorically ineffective. When I asked those in-the-know what role Palin had played in putting together the recent pipeline deal between TransCanada and Exxon, their response was simple: "None."

…The evangelical right can wallow in denial all they want about Palin being victimized by liberals or Democrats or even George Soros…the fact is that most of the people with really bad things to say about Palin -- from John McCain's staff to conservatives in Alaska -- come from the Republican Party. The charges of a left-wing conspiracy are so ridiculous as to be absolutely absurd.

So what is in store for Palin’s future?

Despite the onslaught of criticism she's receiving for her resignation, only time will tell if it was a good idea or not. It’s been suggested that some of her recent criticism has been the result of a stealth Romney attack in the midst a pre-2012 campaign press battle within the GOP. If this is true it means that some in the Republican Party think that by not running a state it will actually help her presidential ambitions in the long run, and that only early attacks can derail these prospects.

Nevertheless, the resignation announcement was poorly handled. The message she used suggested she did not have the skin to deal with negative media coverage, and that led to accusations that she’s egotistic and childish.

As Maureen Dowd wrote in a critical editorial in the New York Times this weekend:

Sarah wanted everyone to know that she’s not having fun and people are being mean to her and she doesn’t feel like finishing her first term as governor…

… After girlish burbling about how “progressing our state” and serving Alaska “is the greatest honor that I could imagine,” and raving about how much she loves her job, she abruptly announced that she was making the ultimate sacrifice: dumping the state on her lieutenant…

…Naturally, she dragged the troops in, saying that her trip to see wounded soldiers overseas “fortified” her decision to give up because “they don’t give up.”

She refuses to succumb to the “politics of personal destruction.” It’s no fun unless she’s the one aiming those poison darts, as she did when she accused Barack Obama of associating “with terrorists who targeted their own country.”

Sometimes, she explained, if you’re the star, you have to “call an audible and pass the ball” and leave at halftime, “so the team can win” somehow without you.

As is the case for many politicians, it’s not so much what she does, but how she does it that can make or break her future. If she fails to explain herself clearly and carefully (in a way that benefits her) criticism will come naturally. And ever since she was first picked up by John McCain last year she has poorly handled the attention of the national spotlight.

But how could she have handled this situation differently?

First of all, she shouldn’t have caught everyone off-guard. An anonymous leak to the press about rumors of a resignation would have spurred the criticism earlier. Then when she did announce her intention to resign she could have responded directly to her critics without any vague explanations about her reasons for resigning.

She would have a better understanding about what the arguments against her would be going into the announcement, and she could respond with a resounding message about how exactly her decision was best for Alaska - putting her critics (largely) to rest.

But if her current sorts of erratic behavior continue - in which she complains about the media and fails to explain the decisions she makes - her hopes for a 2012 nomination will slowly fade away.