Monday, January 25, 2010

Lessons from the Coakley campaign

First, a disclaimer: I wasn't an insider in Martha Coakley's ill-fated campaign. I wasn't even a well-placed outsider. I supported Michael Capuano in the primary, mostly as a voter, and then I did a little volunteering for Coakley at the tail end of the general election. I am not a big shot, and this is merely my educated speculation.

Everyone thought this was going to be a base turnout election. I made that mistake, and it appears that Coakley's campaign did too. Their tactics were pitched at voters who know what they want; both their media ads and their direct mail - between them, practically all of the campaign - told the Democratic base not to elect a scurvy Bushist Republican.

Non-base voters are the muddled middle that the two major parties typically squeeze at the end of a general election. This middle isn't so much moderate as clueless. It's composed of people who don't pay much attention, don't ferret out actual facts from obvious bullshit when they do hear something that sounds relevant, and can't make up their minds in any lasting way about politics. About them, Abe Lincoln said, "God must have loved the common people; he made so many of them." Most of them are middle class, working class, or poor. And someone famous - apparently Josh Billings instead of Mark Twain or Will Rogers, who often get credit - said something like, "The trouble ain't that people don't know enough; it's all they know that just ain't so."

Base voters are ideological voters. You're not going to lose them to the other candidate. You're at risk for losing them to apathy. Coakley was really at risk of losing them to the temptations of the sofa or the coffeehouse on a cold January day without enough motivating daylight. To win, she apparently thought, she needed to get her ones and twos off their duffs and to the polls. I don't blame her from thinking that; I did too.

How do you deal with a strategy whose assumptions prove false? You have to keep taking data, and Coakley didn't. Contrary to post mortem claims, they had money to keep polling. They just chose to spend it on media.

After you've taken data, you have to be prepared and willing to change strategy. That's hard and messy, and people who still believe in the old strategy get bruised egos. So what.

More important than just polling the horse race, you have to poll who's going to show up. Sure, everyone models their view of the likely voters. Something happened in this election that obsoleted those models, and a nimble campaign would have been able to adjust from turning out the base to the real fight this turned into. The problem for Coakley was that the persuasion universe turned out to be much larger than she anticipated.

Coakley tried to improvise an effective field operation. Her campaign failed. In my area, her organizer simply wasn't up to the task, and he was a terrible listener, besides. It's not that unusual in the trenches to meet a twenty-something who thinks he knows your territory better than you do, but it really hurts when you're improvising.

Nearby, a friend reported that the campaign repeatedly failed to return his calls seeking to volunteer. I was able to help him help them, but most people don't have a friend who's tapped into the activist networks and email lists.

It turned out that all those hokey visibility events, where average people stand on street corners with signs waving to motorists, matter. They may not win any votes, but they keep votes from hemorrhaging away when the momentum shifts. They put a human face on the campaign, which otherwise is slick ads and disembodied and increasingly annoying voices on the phone. I previously wasn't sure of the worth of visibility events, but now I am. Standouts keep leaners from shifting. Coakley didn't do standouts.

The same logic works for lawn signs. Neighbors influence each other. Coakley never effectively delivered lawn signs and didn't seek locations.

As a bonus, signs and visibilities are cheap and easily delegated.

On the up side, saturation phone calls and ads did drive turnout. Whether they drove positive votes is another question. Both campaigns used them intensively. Both would again.

It's hard to research races that are close enough to matter. I'd like to know when phoning reaches the point of diminishing returns. My ear tells me it was the Saturday before the election, but it would take a very brave campaign to turn off its GOTV phone banks that early, even in a few test precincts.

And, of course, no matter what your lead in the polls, you can't take any time off the campaign. OK, Christmas day. Maybe.


globeisatrocious said...

Know thou Curt Schillings.

lovable liberal said...

Amen to that.

lovable liberal said...

... though I'd phrase it one of these ways:
- Know thou Curt Schilling.
- Know thy Curt Schillings.

But my archaic English is not very good.

globeisatrocious said...

I am glad you embrace liberalism, because you are a screaming stereotype. Aside from your notion that politics is just a game won when 51% of the voters choose your guy, you shake with a hysteria arising from the idea that the hoi polloi are idiots, who after patient explanation still do not get how wonderful liberalism is. It is based on a fallacy that two people looking at the same information should arrive at the same conclusions. Patronizing and pathetic, "What's the matter with Kansas" was catatonic with this mental malady.

Obama suffers a severe case. It is recently manifest in his smug conclusion that only his inability to explain health care was his undoing; but going back to the campaign, he insisted that only if he sat down with Iran and talked, he would convince them to give up nuclear aspirations.

Obama so far? His clumsiness with congress is Carterian; foreign policy, again Caterian (with America hating thrown in); his clumsiness with the economy (while insisting it would be soo much worse without him and brighter days are coming) is Delano Rooseveltian. But he breaks new ground on inexperience and surrounding himself with public trough feeders.

lovable liberal said...

Look at American discourse, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there are a lot of idiots. Once, people knew when they didn't know much. Now, lots of people, obsequiously flattered by mass media to get at their wallets and their votes, think they are experts because they know Ayla Brown is Scott Brown's daughter.

Your comment about 51% was a poser for me. You were a Bushist, and that was his mode of governing from the start, even though it put the lie to his campaign, as he knew it would.

But why did you impute that to me? Oh, I made the assumption that the purpose of a political campaign is, y'know, to win, which means getting its voters to the polls.

It's obvious that you have never been involved with a campaign of any kind. As a product of your culture, of course, that' no hindrance whatsoever to your expression of an ignorant opinion.

Obama's problems chiefly stem from his failure to stake out a liberal enough position on health care, on financial regulation, on the Keynesian stimulus required to mend the economy. He still thinks that there's a shred of good will in the Republican Party that he might meet.

As for Iran - or any adversary - always best to talk first before shooting, and that's all candidate Obama advocated. Your bloodthirsty bunch of neocons were a nightmare out of bad pulp fiction.