Inside the Political Process: Jim Emery and the Madia Campaign

This is the first 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.

The Macaca Moment

There was an election in November of 2008, but you probably knew that already. You cast a vote for a presidential candidate, and if you were especially interested, put a bumper sticker on your car and a sign in your yard. If you’re a typical Minnesotan, somewhat more engaged in the process than is usual with Americans, statistically speaking, you also voted for a U.S. Senate candidate, and you remember who it was, even if your candidate didn’t win. That’s already quite a bit going on for one election cycle, but of course there was also an election for the U.S. House of Representatives in your district, and at least two candidates who wanted your attention, badly. Those candidates had plenty of help from staff, interns, and volunteers who wanted your interest and your vote. The technologies used by the campaigns to get your attention are changing rapidly, and so too are the effects of those technologies on a rational, responsible political discourse, or as 2008 often proved, a lack thereof.

A congressional campaign is a curious thing. Stakes are high, and resources pour in. Typical citizens might notice, but among the day-to-day of making a living and building a life, the race for President is plenty of politics for most of us to follow. Campaigns do everything they can think of to get noticed, and get people to care about who represents them in the U.S. House. The congressional election in Minnesota’s Third District was especially heated. Jim Ramstad, the Republican who had represented the district for the preceding nine terms, was retiring, leaving his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives open and worth a serious campaign by the Democratic Party (locally known as the DFL). The national press was watching the contest, regarding it as one of the closest in the country. Donors from all over the country gave large sums to candidates. The two major parties and their congressional committees poured resources into advertising. Political activists in the district donated thousands of hours of their time.

Minnesota’s Third Congressional District lies immediately west of Minneapolis and includes the Twin Cities’ western suburbs, hooking eastward at its north and south borders, giving it the resemblance of a giant “C” on a map. The combination of wealthy communities near Lake Minnetonka and conservative small towns to the northwest has rendered the district a solidly Republican area. The district has not elected a Democrat to Congress since the Eisenhower administration.

Jim Ramstad had served the district in Congress since 1991, and was generally considered to be unbeatable as a candidate. Besides possessing the advantages of name recognition and fund raising abilities typical of long-term incumbents, Representative Ramstad’s moderate views on social policy made him an acceptable candidate even among many Democratic voters. Representative Ramstad had not won an election with less than sixty-five percent of the popular vote in the past decade.

On September 17, 2007, Jim Ramstad announced that he would not seek another term in Congress, bringing what had been an unwinable seat for the DFL within the realm of electoral possibility. DFL Chair Brian Melendez noted that U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar had won 56% of the Third District vote in 2006 and that DFLers had picked up nine state legislative seats in the District over the previous two election cycles.

Clearly, the district was in play.

Ashwin Madia took notice. Madia was the son of Indian immigrants who had grown up with an inclination toward public service. Mr. Madia joined the U.S. Marine Corps after receiving his law degree, and served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Following his service, he returned to Minnesota and took a job with a prominent law firm. When Representative Ramstad announced his retirement, Ashwin Madia turned his gaze to politics full time, leaving his attorney job to declare his candidacy in the fall of 2007 and earning the DFL endorsement on April 13, 2008. He would run in the November election against Republican Erik Paulsen, a former Ramstad staffer and Minnesota House Majority Leader. I was a supporter of Madia’s almost from the inception of his campaign. From Labor Day to Election Day my role was more defined as a Communications Assistant for Madia for Congress, a campaign that was scrutinized by political watchers nationwide but had to constantly strain to gain notice in the district where it took place.

While most of us go about our lives, barely taking notice of the flurry of campaign activity happening in our midst, people working on a congressional campaign have little time to think of much else. Campaign workers’ days are narrowly focused on convincing the people around them to not just vote, but to move their pen down the ballot to the race for Congress and to have enough of an opinion about it to choose the right candidate. How to do that is the operative question, and if there was ever a clear answer, it no longer exists. Candidates, today, communicate with the public using every means at their disposal. At the most basic level, office-seekers and their surrogates shake hands, knock on doors, walk in parades, send mailings, and do all the work politicians always have. That work expands with the available technology. Voters have telephones, so campaign workers call. They have radios and televisions, which campaigns employ by running paid advertisements and seeking news coverage. Now most American voters have a computer on their desk, or even in the palm of their hand, rendering the question of how to reach voters vastly more complicated and the answer even more temporary.

The 2008 political season was unlike any before it or any that will come after it, and not only because its substance was unique. Communicating with the public is what a campaign does, by definition, and how that task is best accomplished changes constantly, election cycle to election cycle and almost day to day. Campaigns reinvent themselves and their method of presentation as technology changes, and technology is changing at such a pace, today, that in every election, voters will get a new version of what a campaign is, as the campaigns desperately compete for those voters’ eyes and ears.

By 2006 the practice of “tracking” ran into the practice of filming everything, and the presidential aspirations of one candidate were destroyed by the time he finished uttering one fateful, regretful sentence. If there was a defining moment in the age of high-speed campaigning, it might have occurred on August 11, 2006 when Senator George Allen (R-VA) referred to S.R. Sidarth, an Indian-American man filming one of his campaign events as “Mr. Macaca.” Senator Allen denied that it was his intent to use a racial epithet, though the fact that he added “Welcome to America” after the initial remark made his excuses seem weak. The Senator’s career had been thriving before that day, and he was presumed to be running for the Republican presidential nomination, having made several trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. The incident gained national news coverage immediately, and Senator Allen lost an election in which he had been leading in the polls. His prospects for a future presidential run appear dim.

Mr. Sidarth, the target of the Senator’s remark, was employed by Jim Webb, Allen’s opponent, as a “tracker.” The tracker’s job is to follow a candidate to public appearances, and capture everything he does, every word spoken to a crowd, and every conversation with every individual. The constant presence of the tracker evidently irritated Senator Allen to the point of provoking his uglier side, which was then captured on film, lest the Senator try to deny the incident.

The 2006 Virginia U.S. Senate contest was not the only campaign featuring trackers at the time, but since what has entered the political lexicon as the “macaca moment,” few campaigns of substantial size are without them. Trackers were employed by both the Minnesota State Democratic and Republican parties in the 2008 election cycle. The Republican tracker appeared very early in the election cycle at debate forums featuring Ashwin Madia and his opponent for the Democratic endorsement in the race, Terri Bonoff. No party had yet endorsed a candidate for the open House seat, but both were getting an early glimpse that this was going to be a new kind of campaign, one heavily influenced by the cheapness and availability of technology, in this case a hand-held video camera. All candidates were on notice that every word spoken, indeed every facial gesture, every breath taken, would be recorded. The margin of error for misstatement was reduced to zero. The following October, a week before Election Day, footage from a Madia-Bonoff forum was featured in an Erik Paulsen attack ad. The footage consisted of Madia saying the words “increase taxes,” which the ad repeated several times. The actual recorded footage lasted less than two seconds, but the two words spoken by Ashwin Madia more than half a year before votes were cast may have played a decisive role in the election’s outcome.

Video cameras aside, the obvious new frontier for campaign communication is in cyberspace. There is little question, at this point, that the internet has and will continue to affect nearly every aspect of how the public receives news and information, and as its presence increases, the web has more and more influence on the substance of the campaign. As far back as 1994, Vice President Al Gore was predicting (notwithstanding whomever might deserve the credit for the internet’s invention) the sea change that was coming to politics, foreseeing the web as a tool that would “promote the functioning of democracy by greatly enhancing the participation of citizens in decision making.”

Political organizers took notice of the internet as an organizing tool in Minnesota’s 1998 Governor’s race, as Jesse Ventura’s successful third-party campaign for the post gave much credit to online organizing. The New York Times saw the Ventura victory as a sign of things to come, noting, “The Ventura race is also being hailed by observers outside Minnesota as the first major election in which the Internet made a difference.” Phil Madsen, the director of then-candidate Ventura’s website said, “The Internet for us served as the nervous system for the campaign. The Web site was not the difference; it was the mobilization.”

Ralph Nader’s Green Party presidential campaign of 2000 seems to have been the first to harness the internet as a grassroots organizing tool. His webmaster, Jonah Baker, declared that the internet “was our ultimate means of communication with people.” Four years later, Howard Dean used the internet for fundraising and for arranging physical meetings of his supporters, and since then the use of internet technology has spread down the ticket to practically every campaign. The 2008 Minnesota Third District contest was typical. Both candidates hosted websites that featured biographical information, enabled potential volunteers to provide contact information, allowed donations using a credit card, and provided event schedules. Madia’s page also provided issue papers on various policy positions and included a link to a form that users could fill out in order to ask policy questions of the campaign.

While the medium used to communicate is novel, the substance of what it carries is not. Candidate websites are effective clearinghouses for the same information candidates have always made available, but that information is now more effectively managed. Computers, much as they do in so many other realms, simplify the organization of the data, and make it simpler to use. Even as the new medium adds no particular new thing, its availability changes the character of a campaign by giving the campaigns the power over the information. A website is created and maintained by the campaign itself. The campaign chooses what content to include and, just as importantly, what not to include. No consideration need be given to boiling policy positions down to TV-friendly sound bites. If the candidate wants to write a ten-page policy memo on health care policy, the link can be posted on the homepage, a click away. The campaign is in fully in charge.

This newfound control over information works both ways, enabling web users to access exactly the content they want from the campaigns without the need for media to choose for them. Matt Drudge took notice early in the game and has made a living linking from his “Drudge Report” website to other information sources. In 1998, he told a National Press Club audience that, “Now, with a modem, anyone can follow the world and report on the world—no middle man, no big brother.” That was a decade ago, and of course the world can now be followed on a Blackberry, no modem necessary. As the campaigns choose the content to put forward, the public gets to choose what it deems relevant.

What about the public, the voters? What new role might they play on this altered political landscape?

… to be continued …

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