Inside the Political Process: Epilog

This is the fourth in a series of posts by politico Jim Emery, who worked in the Communications office of the Ashwin Madia campaign in 2008. With a new congressional campaign underway, Jim’s recollections and analyses are timely.

Every politician claims to run a campaign based on the relevant issues, but the Madia for Congress campaign did so with a remarkable degree of follow-through. The campaign employed a full-time policy director, and the candidate’s website featured position papers on nearly every issue that could have occurred to voters, as well as a form to ask the campaign policy questions on whatever subjects might have been missed. Policy papers were issued by the campaign, sometimes daily, precisely outlining Madia’s stance on a wide realm of subjects. The Erik Paulsen for Congress website, by contrast, neglected to even mention Mr. Paulsen’s party affiliation. The contrasting approaches reflect conscious decisions made by the campaigns, and Madia’s policy-centered approach is not without some risk.

During Warren Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign, Boise Penrose, the Republican boss of Philadelphia, is reputed to have said, “Keep Warren at home. If he goes on tour, somebody’s sure to ask him questions, and Warren’s just the sort of damn fool that’ll try and answer them.” The risk in answering questions is, of course, giving an answer that loses more votes than it gains. Harding, the frontrunner in that contest due to public disapproval of outgoing Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, won the election, though how many questions he answered in the process is less than clear. It is usual for incumbents to keep a low policy profile, already possessing sizable advantages, and having nothing to gain by sharing their opinions. The wise strategy in an open-seat election is less obvious, but the Minnesota Third District was Republican territory, and the smart money had voters defaulting to established partisan tendencies.

There is another way to handle policy. A candidate could run by poll, attempting to position him- or herself in agreement with the public on as many issues as possible, but that’s hard to do in a congressional campaign. Public opinion on a wide spectrum of issues is difficult to gauge among voters within a congressional district. Both parties conduct polls to gauge voters’ preference of candidates, as do independent research firms, but getting a clear answer to district voters’ opinions on this or that issue is beyond what a survey could realistically accomplish. The news changes at an ever-increasing pace, and as voters do their best to keep abreast of the emerging details, their opinions can change equally rapidly. Candidates could make issue-by-issue decisions based on the most recent polls, and not, in the end, find themselves on the more popular sides of many issues.

Advice on how to handle policy issues in a campaign, when not contradictory, presents a tightrope that is nearly impossible to walk. Since knowing the respective positions of the district’s voters is impossible, and convincing voters to adopt the candidate’s position is just as unlikely, the only remaining approach seems to be to convince voters that they have been in agreement with the candidate all along. A campaign strategy paper once succinctly advised, “The goal is not to change people’s attitudes, but rather to define the choice so that a vote for the candidate is consistent with existing attitudes.” Given the constant fight for scarce media resources that a congressional campaign finds itself involved in, such a goal is quite unrealistic. Campaigns are often preoccupied with whether average voters will remember the candidate’s name.

There are issues, as well, that resist the taking of a clear stance. Everyone likes a fiery candidate who takes a clear stand, but a congressional representative has to deal with policy issues that are intricate, as everyone in Congress, and everyone who wanted to be, found out last fall. When Wall Street firms began to fall like dominoes last September, the White House and both congressional parties agreed that an emergency had occurred that would require congressional action. That’s about as far as the agreement went, even within the party caucuses. The parties bickered between and amongst themselves over the amount of the bailout, where the money would go, who would be responsible for its disbursement, the degree of oversight, and countless other details. It’s frustrating to observe–and exactly how the process is supposed to work.

An immensely complex piece of legislation concerning levels of finance few of us understand was produced, and Congress was asked to pass it with maximum haste. For a candidate to take a public position on the bailout that was responsible and clear was a little like explaining how to tie a shoe to someone who’s never seen a shoe. Still, the press and the public demanded to know, rightly so, where the candidates stood. At a debate on September 22, with the package still under discussion, Ashwin Madia saw the inevitability of the passage of some kind of bailout, and said, “Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a choice when it comes to the package, so I support it, but I’m not happy about it.” When the first bill failed to pass, Madia issued a statement pointing out the bill’s lack of bipartisan support, and stating that his criteria for passage would include protections for taxpayers, prohibitions on Wall Street bonuses, and greater scrutiny of investment banks. When the compromise bill was passed and signed, the candidate issued another statement, this time stating that he was, “Pleased that a significant bipartisan compromise has been achieved. However, I am disappointed that compromise required more than $100 billion in pork barrel spending.”

To read Madia’s remarks now, it sounds like he was hedging his bets on the issue, never quite getting around to mentioning how he would have voted, but that’s not entirely fair. The candidate made clear that he thought the legislation necessary, and what his expectations of the bill would be. The bill fell short of those expectations, as well as being laden with measures he deemed wasteful, but was still being taken up by the Congress as an emergency measure. So should the hypothetical representative vote yea or nay? All we can reasonably expect of a representative is to advocate for the issues he deems appropriate, and vote his best judgment. The standard for candidates, however, is stricter than that. The deliberation you would wish for in a congressional representative seems like dodging the issue when done by someone running for the office.

In the election season, the greater concern seemed to be convincing the public that there was a campaign at all. In the case of an unknown candidate like Ashwin Madia, there was little to be lost in demonstrating his issue positions to the public. Just getting noticed amongst the extensive buffet of political information in a presidential year is the major, ever-present issue of the day. The mainstream media ignored most of the campaign’s issue-related releases, and showed little interest in covering policy-based events. By Election Day, despite the campaign’s best efforts, most voters likely walked into the booth with little knowledge of either candidate’s specific positions. In the end, candidates are often judged on something more intangible, as one political scientist put it, “Less by what they say than how they say it, less by their achievements than by their personalities.”

The Madia for Congress campaign’s approach to policy–making the candidate’s positions as clear as possible–was a clear strategy to appeal to voters who might be sympathetic to that candidate’s positions. It probably made little difference, though, in the final outcome. Of course a candidate could always attempt to pander to voter preferences, going public with only the most popular of initiatives, as Dick Morris, former strategist to President Clinton has advised.

The key is to advertise your positions only if the public agrees with them. If the public won’t accept your basic premise, it doesn’t matter how much you spend or how well your ads are produced; they won’t work.

That is an ugly sentiment, one that places winning the election as an absolute goal, and gives cause to wonder what the point is in running for office in the first place. At any rate, there seems to be little evidence indicating that this cynical approach leads to electoral success, at least at the level of a congressional election.

The Madia for Congress campaign went out of its way to make its policy positions as clear as possible. To the degree it succeeded in portraying the candidate’s governing philosophy, it was the right approach, if for no other reason than because it was the right thing to do. Policy position may not, in the end, change the minds of very many voters, but voters who take an interest ought to have access to their potential representative’s opinion, and know who they’ll be voting for. Running for Congress is a massive undertaking, and when all is said and done, you might lose. You may as well lose being what you really are.

The day before the election, I was leaving the Madia for Congress office to prepare for the candidate’s visit to a community college that I had arranged, and on my way out, overheard a colleague from the campaign’s finance office down the hall, saying, “You know, I feel like this whole campaign has been a loud argument on about ten blogs between a bunch of people who already had their minds made up.” He might have been right.

After an exhausting campaign that, between the endorsement and the general election, lasted over a year, Ashwin Madia lost the 2008 congressional election in Minnesota’s Third District to Erik Paulsen by over 7.5%. The most frustrating aspect of losing an election is never quite knowing the full reason for the loss. The campaign might have been a failure, or, perhaps, it was a waste of time from the outset, never having the ghost of a chance of picking up a Democratic seat in a traditionally Republican district. There is no clear answer, and for all I know, the results might have had nothing at all to do with effectiveness of the either campaign.

Some time ago, I attended my soon-to-be ninth grade daughter’s registration program at our neighborhood high school, at which teachers from various departments presented what the school had to offer. A couple of dozen parents were in the small auditorium, and the teacher from the Social Studies department decided to liven up the proceedings by asking questions about the recent election, rewarding correct answers by throwing candy. “Who is the new President of the United States?” he asked, and a woman in the sixth row answered, “Barack Obama!” The teacher asked the name of the current winner of the hairpin-close Minnesota U.S. Senate race, and an eighth-grade boy in front got his candy for answering “Al Franken.” “Here’s a tough one,” the teacher said, “Who is the newly elected U.S. Representative from Minnesota Congressional District Three?”

Silence filled the room. The two major party candidates had spent a combined five million dollars running for congress, not counting the campaign of the third-party candidate and the millions of dollars in resources the two major party congressional committees had poured into the race. Untold volunteer hours had been donated. Doors were knocked on, phone calls made, TV ads run. This was a room full of active participants in the community, parents who most likely voted, many of whom probably voted for their new congressman whose name they did not know, much less the name of his defeated opponent.

Finally I could take no more. “Erik Paulsen,” I called out, and was dully rewarded with a strawberry Starburst. It was like some kind of bitter joke. If a congressional candidate falls in a district where nobody much is paying attention, does it make a sound? Apparently not. The time, effort, and resources poured into convincing voters in the district to have an opinion on who represents them in Congress had no effect at all, at least not among the parents of eighth graders in East Bloomington. They may have simply been among the nearly 12,000 voters in the district who cast a vote for President, and didn’t bother with the election for the U.S. House.

The contest for the congressional seat in Minnesota’s Third District had the attention of two major political parties, the national press, and political watchers all over the country, which is to say the contest was watched by everyone except the people who mattered most, the residents of the district who would cast a vote for the seat. Those are the people the campaign competed for, and those people have other things on their mind. The campaigns are left with one comprehensive communications strategy to capture the attention of voters: Try everything.

It’s a new age of politics, and you have to campaign using every new piece of technology that comes along, but that doesn’t exempt anyone from using the tried and true methods of campaigning that candidates have always engaged in. Your supporters might be posting on blogs, but they’d better not neglect to send letters to the editor of their local free weekly paper. You might have a slick website, but don’t forget to knock on doors. Email your supporters, and anyone who might possibly become a supporter, but you best send a bulk mailing, lest your name become lost in the spam filter.

While you’re in the middle of a congressional campaign, that campaign seems drastically important, and truly it is. This is a representative democracy, and elections decide who makes the nation’s important decisions on all of our behalf. Most people don’t think about that every day, though. They don’t wake up every day and check their email to see where their candidate’s name has been mentioned. They don’t care how many people showed up at the West Minnetonka Rotary Club last Wednesday morning to hear his speech. They don’t have a bumper sticker. So the campaign does what it can to bring it to them, and so does every other candidate campaigning for every other office.

It’s all background noise after a while. The commercial break during every local TV news broadcast is filled with one political ad after another–the Presidential election, Senate contest, House races not just in your district but all the others that are in the same broadcast market. Mailers arrive from candidates, parties, interest groups. You get phone calls, people at the door, fliers on the stoop if they miss you. The state house candidate shakes your hand at the local farmers market. Your friends send you emails. Pundits on the radio handicap the races. The parties send you sample ballots. After a while, no one can distinguish one candidate from another. Ashwin Madia, right. Remind me what he was running for again?

It’s a couple of months after the election, now. My candidate lost, and life seems to be going on, my family currently escaping the clutches of the looming economic crisis. The Presidential candidate I supported won, and I have enough distance from the disappointing election to see that President of the United States is probably more significant than a freshman representative in the U.S. House, even if that’s not the campaign I poured my energy into. I won’t be voting for anyone for anything for a couple of years, so my attention can drift back to the concerns that make up life for normal people–who’s making dinner, whether the kids got their homework done, how to handle the latest car trouble, how stable the Twins third base situation is. It’s enough to fill up the days, and then some. If someone wants to tell me they’re running for Congress, well, they’ll have some work ahead of them to get me to notice.

Perspective gained, politics can resume a more reasonable role in life, as it does for most people. No more Google Alerts in my inbox. Well, that’s almost true. My state senator is up for reelection in 2010, and I do have an alert for his name, as well as the three prominent Republicans in the district that might consider challenging him. This morning, I saw that one of them is giving a talk at a meeting next week. I wonder if anyone should be taping that.

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