Sunday, June 08, 2008

What It Takes to Win - Candidate Specific Strategic Advantages

A relatively heated conversation (granted, between what appears to be between myself and two people) regarding money and congressional candidate Samm Simpson taking place on my last posting on the 10th CD inspired me to give my view of some of the key aspects of a winning campaign.

When I first meet with a candidates to discuss their campaign, my first question is "Why can you win?"

Invariably, they misunderstand this question - as I believe the Samm Simpson supporter on the aforementioned post did.

A candidate will usually answer this question by describing why they are right on the issues. But I didn't ask why you are right, I asked why you will win and that is a very different question.

Part of the answer is about being "right" - by which I mean having positions that are in line with those of the district, but mostly it is about the strategic advantages a candidate brings to the campaign.

One of my early mentors, a hard core field organizer, told me that a campaign, ultimately, comes down to this strategy - you find the people who are going to vote for you and you make sure they vote. Everytime I asked a question, he would shake his head and say "you find the people who are going to vote for you and make sure they vote." Ask a third time and he would make a comment to effect that this must be the slow class. By finding the voters who are going to vote for them, he meant identifying universes of registered voter ("universe" in political speak simply means a set of people meeting a certain description - such as "independents" or "women with school age children") who would support your candidate if they were presented with your candidate's message.

My point is that a strategic advantage is one that brings you closer to the basic goal of getting more votes than the person in second place.

As blogging conceit, let's examine each of the three major challengers to Bill Young to see what strategtic advantages they possess.

Samm Simpson's main advantage is that she ran two years ago. She has some name recognition, though less than you might expect, because she lacked the funds to run a competitive campaign, so she didn't have the resources to (repeat after me) find the voters who were going to vote for her and make sure they voted. She won approximately 1/3 of the vote in 2006 and presumably she can count on that same 1/3 in 2006, so only has to find another 15% or so. This could be a decided advantage, but it is likely that the 1/3 were simply folks who inclined to vote for the Democrat under any circumstance that year (and 2006 was a Democratic wave year, so that number might have been higher than usual). However, there is no doubt that having run before is a good way to get into position to win two years later (a number of the winners in 2006 were candidates who had run in 2004).

Max Linn's strategic advantage is money. As an independently wealthy man, he has the ability to self-finance (my own sense is that he can, if he chooses, loan his campaign up t0 $500,000-$750,000, though there is the possibility that he may choose not to, which doesn't leave him with much of an advantage). As noted earlier, finding those voters and getting them his message will take money - a lot of money. Linn does have the potential for having a early leg up to getting his message out. Also, like Simpson, Linn has run before, but because he ran as a Reform Party candidate for governor in 2006 and got almost no earned media, he doesn't bring much of a base with him.

Bob Hackworth has the best profile for the single reason that he is already an elected official. Dunedin is not a particularly large town and much of it lies in the 9th Congressional District, but being an elected official means that, like a former candidate, there is a certain number of voters who had voted for him in the past (human nature being what it is, they are also likely to vote for him in the future). Unlike Simpson, he also has a history of winning, even if only in Dunedin - and voters (and donors!) like a winner. Dunedin is a relatively prosperous town and being an elected official generally provides a good early base for raising money.


At 6/08/2008 05:15:00 PM, Anonymous Jim Johnson said...

"you find the people who are going to vote for you and make sure they vote."

It's surprising how few candidates and volunteers understand this axiom. It makes sense, if you can do both parts better than the other guy/gal - you will win.

The problem for these three Democratic candidates are, their universes are smaller than Bill Young's. So, Young will win the first part of the strategy.

Moreover, Republicans at all levels have been beating the Democrats at voter turnout - they have had better organized absentee plans and better organized phone banking.

Elections are not really about issues -- elections are about getting the people who agree on with you on issues to go to the polls.

Finally, I will say down-ticket races have other problems. They often lack resources to fulfill the strategy in a meaningful way -- but up-ticket races will draw voters.

So I will add a third part to the strategy, "convince voters going to the polls for other races, to vote for you in your race."

At 6/08/2008 06:40:00 PM, Blogger Campaign Manager said...

Thank you, Jim.

I am hoping to make this a multi-part series to keep myself occupied until the leg races start to heat up.

Also, I want to fight against the "great secret" myth. Candidates always seem to believe there is some great secret that Terry McCauliffe or Paul Begala keep in a safe in Falls Church, VA when, in fact, it is all about very simple actions. The execution isn't always simple, of course.

I will take aim at your characterization of the universes.

Young does start with immmense advantages, but the DPI is 50% and the registration numbers are about equal.

A Democrat who could bring registered Dems home and could do well among independents could well, in this environment, upset even Young.

But it will take a lot of money - at least $750,000 and quite likely twice that. Also, a strong field operation would be required to make up those last percentages. A field operation is worth, at best 5% in a race (probably less in a race this size), but if you get it to a 50/50 race, then a strong GOTV plan can get you over the finish line.

I will probably get castigated for this, but I have no hope that Simpson will make a race of this. Linn needs some strong direction if he is to do so. The wild card is Hackworth. If he can raise the money so that the DCCC is willing to play in this race, then who knows what could happen?

At 6/09/2008 11:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the focus on District 10. More action this time around than in the history of Bill Young's reign.

Re: the effect of money. Much less in the primary, as only about 40K Dems will turn out, so the winner only needs to take 13-20K votes (depending upon the split).

That's VERY doable with ground game alone. (That is, if you have the kind of ground game Samm's campaign has.)

Re: the general. Agreed that ground game alone can't make it when you're talking almost half a million potential voters. But in addition to money there is the voracity of the candidate, the platform, the desire for change within the electorate, the campaign's ability to legally team with the local presidential campaign, the willingness of voters to vote straight ticket from Pres on down, and the willingness of the media to jump onto the story of the campaign.

A long series of articles in the Times analizing the positions of the 2 candidates and what that means for voters/broadcasters doing their jobs to serve their communities by televising debates can make literally tens of thousands of dollars in media buys ineffectual.

And finally, what we're doing right here: using the internet effectively.

Granted, it's an uphill battle without the big money attached, but Samm's campaign has always been about money in politics being one of the main reasons we're in the straights we're in, so perhaps the metaphore will ring true enough to the voters, along with the other factors, to create the kind of upsets we're already seeing in congressional districts across the country.

At 6/09/2008 11:26:00 AM, Blogger DavidFL10 said...

Thanks for the explanations. It is important that we see what our options are.


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