Friday, November 7, 2008

Notes on Last Tuesday…

It says something good about America that my kids (ages 9 and 11) don’t even give it a second thought that an African-American has been elected President of the United States.
A sad end for John McCain, a genuine American hero who I voted for twice over the years. It’s troubling that what McCain endured for his country in Vietnam, and how he understands patriotism, are viewed by too many as out-dated relics of an ancient era.

McCain’s defeat recalls this nugget - almost always true - from an old-timer late one night many years ago in a smoke-filled Providence campaign headquarters: “Who wins campaigns? The guy who runs the best campaign!”

George Bush dealt McCain a tough hand. But in both tone and execution, McCain’s effort was unworthy of him. In contrast, Obama’s campaign was the best presidential effort I’ve seen in my lifetime. (How do you quantify that? Obama is the first Democrat to break 51% since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and only the second since Harry Truman in 1948.)

The GOP base McCain inherited from Bush and Karl Rove was a stone around his neck. That base is careening perilously away from the new mainstream in American politics and heading over the cliff into “Fringe Valley”. To placate that base, McCain had to say things he knew better of, and pick the unsettling Sarah Palin. Twenty years ago, when Jesse Jackson was winning Democratic presidential primaries, I used to wonder if a Democrat could say what had to be said to win the nomination and still win in November. Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis confirmed that the answer was "No.” Now, McCain’s campaign makes me wonder if the GOP hasn’t created a similar, self-defeating dynamic.
In my little town of East Greenwich (pop. about 13,000) I had the chance to work with some neighbors on a school bond referendum for a new middle school that proved, again, that a good campaign almost always wins. The amount in question, $52 million, was a daunting amount for a town our size, made even more so by the current economic climate. Further, voters had already rejected a similar plan two elections ago. But starting in the summer, a small, focused group of volunteers began to identify supporters over the phone. This is a grueling process, but one that makes the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, in local races, there is no substitute for phone banking and door-to-door campaigning. It doesn’t matter what else you do: a candidate that doesn’t do those two things might as well just roll the dice. And challengers who aren’t prepared to invest the time and effort in these two things should seriously reconsider running at all.
It was heartening to win with 65% of the vote, particularly with a tiny budget of only a couple thousand dollars raised on the Internet. My old rule of thumb for local races was that the campaign should expect to spend $2 to $4 per voter, with most of that money going to direct mail. But just as the Internet is making mainstream news outlets struggle for relevance, the ‘net is also helping save local campaigns thousands of dollars by allowing them to bypass the Post Office and communicate directly with voters. Direct mail is still an important tool, but in a local race it becomes a lot lower priority – our campaign didn’t do any, and didn’t suffer for it. (We didn’t do any newspaper advertising, either.)
The Rhode Island GOP continues its march to extinction, winning only 10 of 113 legislative seats. Sure, I know New England is rough terrain for Republicans, and I know that the larger turnout in Presidential election years is tough to overcome. Still, I wonder how many of them relied on mail, earned media and other indirect communications to make the kind of personal contact that only doorbells and volunteers on telephones can create.

If you’re not directly touching voters – like Barack Obama or the Taxpayers for EG Schools – you’re probably not running the best campaign. And if you're not running the best campaign, you're probably not winning.

No comments: