Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Democrats Can Rebuild in Pinellas County

Ramsay McLaughlin, the new chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC), gave a talk to Tiger Bay about what the DEC needs to accomplish in order to build the party and win elections.

He makes some good points – the DEC needs money, yes; the DEC needs stronger organization; and yes, the DEC (and Democratic candidates and electeds in Pinellas) need a coherent message (message being something that requires a posting all its own in the future).

Nevertheless, without disputing the need for the DEC to focus on those three, core aspects of political campaigning (money, organization and message), let me offer my own little bit of “strategery.”

In some ways, I hate to talk about strategy. Too many times, when I hear some talk about political strategy, it means I am about to hear a candidate or an inexperienced campaign manager give me some excuse why they are delaying or not going to raise money or knock on doors or otherwise engage in avoiding some critical aspect of modern political campaigning. These people often spend huge amounts of time with their kitchen cabinet discussing the campaign website and yard sign strategy, but don’t have a basic palm card to hand out during door knocking with the election only a few months away.

So please, don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say – the DEC and every political campaign needs to focus on money, message, building a strong organization.

That said, let’s get into the weeds a little.

Some of this I’ve gone over before, but let’s take it from the top.

In 2008, the Pinellas DEC engaged in a massive coordinated campaign called “Vote Local.” It was focused on promoting all Democrats running for office. It was a grand idea that was designed to dovetail with the large GOTV operation being promoted and run by the Obama campaign.

It did not work.

Obama won Pinellas with roughly 55% of vote, a very strong showing considering Pinellas had been won relatively narrowly by Gore in 2000 and by Bush in 2004.

But Democrats down the ticket failed to benefit or even do very well.

The Vote Local centerpiece was an oversized palm card that contained the name and logo of virtually every Democrat running. It looked sort of like those super expensive concert t-shirts that contain all the images and logos used on all the other concert t-shirts.

Now, I love my Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert t-shirt, but it is inarguably cluttered and you have to stare at it for a remarkably long period of time to figure out which album he was touring in support of.

You should not have to stare for more than two or three seconds at a good piece of campaign literature to figure out who or what is being supporter and why.

The second part of the package is perhaps the most tricky.

It is very difficult for local party organizations to focus on those races that the most winnable, because that invariably means leaving other candidates behind.

But I truly believe it is a necessary part of political life. I have worked for a number of state party organizations and it is never fun to cut someone you’ve worked with off from the support and resources they were hoping for an expecting from you. It is even harder when I’ve been on the other side – cut out of the loop by my party.

But resources are finite – if you spread them too thin, nothing gets accomplished.

For example, in 2008, I believe that the party could reasonably have determined that the Democratic candidates with the best chance of picking up a local seat were Carl Zimmerman and Rene Flowers.

Rene Flowers had run for and won public office in the past and Zimmerman had laid the groundwork (and his opponent made the gaffes) for potential victory. Both lost, but unlike Democratic candidates for other offices, they came close enough that a concerted effort by county Democrats could have put one or both of them over the top – more than could be said for the party’s candidate for supervisor of elections.

This is not meant to disrespect Jack Killingsworth, the aforementioned candidate for supervisor of elections, but it does lead into my final point.

Not everybody is ready to run for every office.

Running countywide is expensive and difficult. So is running for the legislature. Very few Democratic candidates in Pinellas in ’08 had prior experience in public office. Bob Hackworth was Mayor of Dunedin and Rene Flowers was a St. Petersburg City Councilwoman. Other than that, the field was pretty thin.

The DEC would be well advised to think about the next round of municipal elections. We just had a bunch, but another cluster will be along before you know it. Think of it as helping a candidate learn to walk before s/he runs.

Think of it as providing a base from which to run from.

If the DEC wants to start winning legislative seats and county positions, they need to first focus on winning city elections in Clearwater and Tarpon Springs (why the DEC didn’t jump into the Dunedin mayoral election earlier this spring is beyond my feeble mind to grasp).

Jumping directly into a (relatively) big race is not necessarily the best idea for folks. It is important to think about races that suit your personal, financial and geographic strengths.

For example, an environmentalist in Hillsborough, rather than making their first campaign a quixotic effort to unseat a sitting member of the county commission, might choose to run for the Water and Soil Conservation District.

A young teacher (sort of) won a mayorship in Kenneth City by did of hard work and public dissatisfaction with city government.

Kenneth City? Soil and Water Conservation Districts?

They may not sound sexy, but it’s how a party builds real strength (read up on how social conservatives laid the groundwork for their period of political domination by systematically running candidates for school board).

Get elected. Get some folks used to the idea of voting for you. Then take the plunge and go after one of the big boys.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to Spend the Cash

So now that you’ve raised all that money, what do you do with it?

Yards signs! Billboards! High priced consultants! Emery boards with your name printed on them in bright, bold letters! Frisbees with your name printed on them in bright, bold letters!

The possibilities are endless… by which I mean opportunities for candidates to spend their name on truly useless crap.

One rule of thumb is that 75-85% of your budget should go to direct voter contact – and that means that your yard signs, your staff, your office supplies, food for events, t-shirts, and any other little knick-knack you want to invest money in… well, that comes out of that 25-15% not devoted to direct voter contact.

And people, remember, this is for your benefit, not mine. Trying to fudge the numbers and/or push it closer to 25% than 15% doesn’t hurt me, but it does waste your money – money that was given to you by hard-working people who believe in you.

So what does count? What should you be spending the lion’s share of your budget on? What exactly is “direct voter contact?”

Direct voter contact is anything that reaches out to a voter in your universe. A billboard on U.S. 19 spends a great deal of its time reaching out to Canadian tourists. A direct mail piece, on the other hand, can be sent directly to a specific universe of voters that you need (for more information on universes and targeting, see my post on field operations).

A cable television buy is a little more random, but can be targeted at households in zip codes within your district and further targeted by playing during certain programs (for example, a commercial touting one’s support for education can be shown on different channels and during different programs than an ad touting one’s support for the right bring a concealed AK-47 with you to church). Television ads, like radio ads, also provide a certain amount of credibility to one’s campaign. In our culture, when you appear on TV or (to a lesser extent) on the radio, you are perceived as having crossed a certain threshold that legitimizes you.

That is not to say that you need TV. Mitch Kates recently spoke about eschewing television advertising in Kevin Beckner’s recent campaign for Hillsborough County Commissioner. Cable is relatively affordable, as is radio, but you need a lot of hits for a message to sink in. If you don’t have the resources to put up an aggressive and sustained television campaign or if the opportunity cost is too great, then it is a waste of money to go on television.

In most local and legislative races, direct mail will take up a great deal of the budget. Costs for design, printing, and mailing will run you anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per mail piece (most mail pieces are printed on glossy, decent stock, which costs more). There are ways to cut down costs, but cheap mail tends to look cheap and also tends to arrive in voters’ mailboxes the day after the election. Trust me. It’s worth to pay for quality.

For me, a good direct mail program means that at least seven pieces of mail, with every voter in your targeted universe getting at least five pieces (the remaining two could be targeted at subsets within the universe, such as women, families with children, independents, or ethnic communities).

One test I sometimes use in candidate trainings is to ask, if I send out a flyer to nurses, Democratic men and women who are also independents or no party voters – how many hits have we done?

Most folks will say three, but the correct answer is one. Why? Because you never made a concerted effort to hit any particular voter more than once.

Voter contact is all about multiple contacts. It’s about a single voter that you need seeing you on television, seeing you in their mailbox, seeing you knock on their door, and hearing a volunteer call them on the phone.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Money, Money, Money

Like it or not, fundraising is what make the political world go ‘round and ‘round.

Fundraising receipts aren’t a sure way to predict the winner, but if you were creating a March Madness bracket for political campaigns, you would clean up at your office pool by seeding candidates based on money raised and cash on hand (CoH).

Nevertheless, is it possible to win when you raise and spend less money than your opponent? Absolutely, it happens all the time.

The real key in fundraising is staying competitive.

If your opponent will raise and spend $250,000, you are well advised to raise at least $175,000 because that $75,000 difference means your opponent has the ability to spend roughly 50% more than you on paid media (paid media means direct mail, radio, tv, and all other forms of paid advertising, as opposed to earned media, which means getting one’s name in the news through press conferences, press releases, and the like).

Online fundraising is in the news a lot and it is a very important tool, but for most candidates – people who are running for the state legislature, city council, or school board, the factors that drive online fundraising are not in your favor. The so-called netroots, an aggregation of opinion-making bloggers and sites are the primary way that internet fundraising becomes a major factor for a candidate. It can also be driven by groups like EMILY’s List on the left (EMILY’s List helps only pro-choice Democratic women – and want to know how seriously they take fundraising? EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, i.e., it rises) and the Club for Growth on the right (which only helps hard-line anti-tax and anti-regulation Republicans). Point being, if you are running for your local city council, chances are none of the major players have ever heard of you and the money you raise will mostly come down to the work you do offline (folks may choose to give to you through your website, but they will give only after you have done some old fashioned leg work).

So, how do you raise money?

There are three interconnected ways you raise money – call time, direct mail, and events.

Call time refers to time spent on the phone, by the candidate, dialing for dollars – literally calling everyone s/he knows, asking for money. As with all fundraising requests, the key points are asking for a specific amount, for a specific purpose, by a specific time.

Before calling someone up for money, a candidate should already know how much to ask for – whether it’s a maximum contribution ($500 in many local elections) or just $25. A good fundraiser doesn’t wait for the potential to suggest a dollar figure, but already has a specific amount in mind.

Candidates should be able to explain where the money is going and why the need it. For more political sophisticated donors, that explanation could include the need to have a strong showing in an early campaign finance filing, as a show of intent, but it can also be as prosaic as helping to pay for yard signs or the campaign’s first radio ad.

By a specific time means that a candidate, upon getting a pledge to donate, should establish when and how the money will arrive. Chasing down checks is a major part of fundraising and that process is made a lot easier if the candidate establishes that, for example, their spouse will coming by that person’s office on Friday to pick up the check. At the very least, one should make sure to ask the donor to put the check in the mail (or to go online to contribute) within 24 hours.

Direct mai
l is usually used for follow up solicitations and small donor solicitations (if you can expect to get at least $250 from a donor, make personal call!), but it also includes invitations to fundraising events that could be relatively high dollar.

If you’ve ever gotten an invite to fundraising event, you will see two or three levels of giving with names like “guest,” “sponsor,” “host,” or cutsey names like George W. Bush’s “Rangers.” Each level has a minimum amount attached (specific amount, remember!). Folks you expect to donate at the higher levels need personal attention and should get personal calls (I told you call time, direct mail, and events were interconnected).

Assuming this is now as clear as mud, you are probably wondering, yes, that’s all well and good, but who the heck am I calling/mailing/inviting to fundraising events? Who holds the magic secret of the list of names? James Carville? Karl Rove? Who!

The answer is, of course, you the candidate. Every one of your friends, your relatives, your college classmates, your business partners, casual acquaintances, players on your co-ed softball team, and everyone in your entire life who ever gave you their business card. This is your list. When you’ve run through that list, you go to your friends and ask them for the names of everyone they know. You go to local business owners, unions, and PACs, and you ask, ask, ask. You go to meetings of Republican or Democratic clubs and you ask, ask, ask. Kaffee Klatches and Kiwanis meetings. Church socials. Everyone you meet is noted and added to the master list.

Question: When does fundraising start?

Answer: Immediately. As soon as you know you will be running for election.

Nothing is more frustrating than hearing about a candidate who is waiting to start fundraising. I have met candidates running for re-election who decided to wait until five months out to start collecting checks.

When I do candidate training, one of the first questions I ask is what the most critical resource you have?

Many candidates will talk about things like enthusiasm, volunteers, community support. Some will get off track and explain to me why they are right on the issues. The more savvy candidates will mention money.

But they are all wrong. The answer I am looking for is time.

You can raise more money, you can knock on more doors, recruit more volunteers. But all of these require time. And time is the one resource you never get any more of.

The clock started ticking before you even thought the election. And it never stops.

If you look at the Congressional class of 2008, those (mostly Democrats) who defeated incumbents almost without exception started very, very early.

Larry Kissell, who is now the Congressman from North Carolina's eighth district, lost in 2006. He raised less than $400,000. In 2008, he outraised and outworked the incumbent by beginning to campaign for 2008 the day after he lost in 2006. That's starting early and that's how you win.

I have heard all the arguments about why it is ok to wait and explanations about getting the timing just right and riding momentum to victory like championship surfer. But I don’t buy it.

Momentum, the Big Mo’ is a fickle thing, mostly outside of your control. It’s not a wave you can see on the ocean, that can be timed just right. Efforts to harness it and time it require knowledge well beyond that of mortal man. You don’t see the wave until it’s right on your tail – which means that the best way to catch the Big Mo’ is be working your butt off longer than other guys on the ballot with you – write your plan earlier, knock on doors earlier, and start raising money earlier – so that when and if that wave appears out nowhere, you have the resources already in hand to take advantage of circumstances.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I Was So Very, Very Wrong

A while back, I said that I thought that then President George W. Bush made a terrible mistake when he passed over Michael Steele for the chairmanship of the RNC. While I still think that there just isn't any good reason for Mel Martinez, in general, I was clearly wrong in thinking that Steele would be anything other than a disaster.

I cannot apologize enough for having ever suggested that Steele had a spine or any sort of delaying mechanism between his brain and his mouth. It is clear that the most dangerous place in America is between Michael Steele and a live camera feed that he can embarrass himself on.

Right now the only thing keeping him in a job in the hope that the GOP might eke out a narrow win in the 20th Congressional District of New York and the face that the second highest vote getter during the RNC election used to belong to a white-only country club.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Jim Greer to Save the Day

When not acknowledging Rush Limbaugh’s spiritual leadership of the Republican Party, new RNC Chair Michael Steele has been attempting to re-jigger the committee so that they stop… well, losing.

He’s gotten some flack over his lack of speed in staffing up (he asked for mass resignations at the RNC when he took over), but as part of his rebuilding process, he is engaged in a top to bottom review of all departments and processes. Ten national committeepersons have been assigned to the task. Among that ten is Florida’s own Jim Greer.

Yes, children, one of the men in charge of rebuilding the RNC is the man who was in charge when Florida stopped being a red state.

But, in his defense, of the ten committeepersons, only one is from a state that McCain won (that being Henry Barbour, Mississippi committeeman and nephew of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the Governor who firmly believes that there is no situation where surprisingly dainty, two-tone loafers are not appropriate).