How the Game has Changed


For years political mail and TV commercials have made up the bulk of campaign spending. But it’s clear that the same tired tactics are not working. Voters, turned off by the seemingly hate-filled missives that arrive in droves during campaigns, are simply tossing mail in the trash.

The mantra coming from fearful consultants is that candidates must send this type of mail, or else risk being buried by the opponent; television ads must also keep pace. The need to stay up with the Joneses has caused the majority of voters to reject politics altogether. The beneficiaries are those who have a vested interest in the outcome—they already vote and no amount of mail or television advertising will change their views.

In races that have more than one candidate and “down-ballot,” the need to stand out becomes even more pressing. Arithmetic shows that almost everyone loses in political campaigns. The mayor’s race is a good example: eight candidates ran but one could win. Another example: 14 lost souls failed to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown in June.

Legitimate candidates are weeded out by the media, based on qualifications and level of support in polling data, but just as—if not more—important is whether a candidate raises enough money to compete.

Top-level races receive the most scrutiny. While most of the money is spent on these contests, it’s the down-ballot races, where voting drops off, when money makes the biggest difference. For instance, billions were spent on the Presidential race in 2014. News coverage was extensive. But nothing changed from a polling perspective. President Obama won with the same polling figure he started with at the beginning of the contest.

Consultants might claim that President Obama would have lost had he not matched Mitt Romney in resources. But Meg Whitman spent over $165 million to become governor of California in 2010, and she lost to the frugal Brown. Voters actually rejected her spending as crass and unnecessary. So the big races aren’t really about money.

Television advertising, in particular, has become a huge turnoff. Again, many consultants will say that a candidate must compete on the same level of their opponent to win. But that doesn’t explain the Ed Gillespie-Mark Warner race in Virginia. Gillespie, behind in the polls, stopped his advertising. Warner stayed up, with most pundits agreeing he would win in a walk; he ended up barely limping over the finish line. Could it be that Gillespie actually won over voters by foregoing TV ads?

This brings us back to down ballot races. Resources do have an effect, as Gary Kremen’s water district victory showed. (Full disclosure: I worked on Kremen’s campaign.) He won, but it wasn’t just that he had resources. Kremen effectively spent money on things that matter. Yes, he did mail, but he also did voter identification, GOTV and worked very hard to convince voters on the issues.

It is never about how much a candidate spends, but how they spend that money. Kevin Jensen had the best sign campaign in the county last summer but still lost to Sheriff Laurie Smith (another client of mine). Signs have never been effective—but, again, they are necessary because of the Joneses mentality in politics.

Winning in politics is a simple formula, more arithmetic than art. You have to get more voters to the polls than your opponent. In a down-ballot race, this means defining an environment and making sure supporters vote, which can be much easier said than done. But candidates who target resources on things that matter will always have the advantage.

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