Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lessons in Politics

A couple of primaries have been watched closely this cycle. First and foremost, of course, was the Connecticut Democratic senate primary between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont. Another was the primary last week between Lincoln Chafee and Steve Laffey in Rhode Island.

But there was a little noticed primary in another New England state that, to me, exemplifies at least a third of what I believe is an effective winning electoral strategy.

While any successful campaign has a multitude of different facets, these three are what I believe are the biggies for any successful candidate. And of course, enumerating these three is massively oversimplifying them, as they all are deeply complicated.

The first is the candidate himself. I have become convinced that many voters will vote for someone they completely disagree with on the issues if they trust that person. While a component of this trust is incumbent on the candidate having experience, i.e. knowing what the hell they're doing, I don't think this is crucial. Just the perception of being trustworthy and competent makes a huge difference in a race.

There has been an incredible amount of talk over the past few years on framing. Framing, messaging, whatever. It's simple, if you control the issues, it benefits you in an incredible way. If Jerry Kilgore has been successful in making last year's race about the death penalty or immigration, he would be our Governor right now. But fortunately, Tim Kaine (and his incredibly talented group of staffers, I might add) was able to steer the debate in a different direction. I can't tell you how gratifying it was, after months of talking to people who weren't paying attention to the race, to have an average voter tell me my own talking points. We stayed on message. Kilgore tried to distract us, and the public. But we stayed on message, ferociously. And it worked.

But, the aspect of a campaign that was exemplified yesterday in Massachusetts was field. Field, field and more field. I've no doubt that the winner of yesterdays' primary is an incredibly genuine and disciplined candidate. But the story of campaign is his field program.

I've never quite trusted the importance of media. Sure, it's important, but if it were everything, I'd be campaigning for Harris Miller right now. Chris Gabrieli spent $8 million on television ads in his bid for Massachusetts governor. While this was enough to get him ahead of the former front-runner, Thomas Reilly, he was still slaughtered by Deval Patrick, who won an incredible 50% in a three way race.

While Patrick was probably ahead far enough he could have taken the last week off and still won, he didn't. For months, I've been hearing about his incredible grassroots effort. But the grassroots is just a glorified term for volunteer recruitment. And volunteers are the backbone of a good field program. You have staffers who are providing the direction of a campaign, and serving as role models and inspiration for the volunteers (I kid you not), but it is volunteers who talk to voters at their houses and on the phones. It is volunteers who go to supporters' homes on election day, and make sure they vote, no matter what, even if it means nagging them ceaselessly until it means they vote just to shut you up.

Being the former President of the Providence College Democrats, I'm still in the loop. So, I heard the call Monday night from the Patrick campaign, to make phone calls from a location in Providence for his race. Not only was he the only candidate to think to outreach to Democratic organization at a school whose student body is nearly half from Mass., but this was a candidate massively ahead in the polls still pulling out all the stops for his GOTV program.

This means two things for me. First, Deval Patrick knows how important a field program is. He knows he's in for a tough race between now and November 7th. He knows his opponent, just by being a Republican, will receive the benefit of a top-notch GOTV program. He knows that in a close race, as this one is likely to be, a top-notch GOTV program can, and probably will, make the difference.

But, even better, he saw his primarly for what is really was: a dry-run for Election Day. I would bet that Patrick and his staff are spending this very moment scouring precinct results and turnout numbers, looking for their strengths and weaknesses. And I would bet they will spend the next two months fixing the weak points and enhancing the strengths. And I would bet that's why Deval Patrick will be the next Governor of Massachusetts.

I need not remind you how important this would be, as it would be a Democratic pick-up. Not only would it be a black mark against Mitt Romney's Presidential aspirations, but, while I'm not sure of the exact powers of the Massachusetts governor, it can be crucially important when electoral vacancies or redistricting come up.

Now, I provide the following links with the understanding that if you live in Virginia, you will not use them unless you are prohibited by FEC regulations from donating to Jim Webb or Al Weed. Here goes...

Deval Patrick for Governor!


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