Fresh Faces Require Fresh Techniques

Most of the pundits seem to agree that voters currently mistrust both parties. Perhaps one reason voters see all politicians as more or less the same is that that so many candidates in each party follow a campaign template designed more to annoy than to enlighten. One surviving bubble that started in the 1990s is the the enrichment of political consultants via the perpetual campaign. The dollars per vote numbers being spent on media in recent campaigns has been healthier than the economy. The non-political class is sick of it.

This leads me to ask, why did those supporting a third-party challenger like Doug Hoffman use techniques that have fueled much of the mistrust and campaign fatigue, such as robo-calls? It seems to me that in 2010, candidates who argue that they are citizen-candidates, rather than the same old corrupt and unresponsive politicians in Washington, will need to use different methods of outreach. Otherwise, how are voters going to see them as genuinely fresh faces to be trusted?  

Everybody with whom I have discussed the issue gives a thumbs down to negative advertising and robo-calls as tactics that turn them off to politics and politicians. They are especially disdainful of standard negative political ads that consist of grainy black-and-white photos of the incumbent as a professional voice artist rhetorically accuses him of beating his wife or kicking his pet dog. Such ads are now seen as the political equivalent of the charges and counter-charges in a really nasty divorce. Everyone who watches them knows that both sides are making gross exaggerations, so everything tends to get discounted, including information that really might be important. Multiple robo-calls were also greeted with moans of "enough already." The voters know there is an election coming.  

It is entirely possible to be both negative and fresh. You don't have to like the late Paul Wellstone's politics to admire his 1990 campaign, which got a lot of bang for the buck and gave him an instant cult following on the political left. A good example of a fresh approach by a conservative came in a 1994 congressional race in Oklahoma. A Republican challenger ran negative ads that were short skits played out by professional actors. One ad brought to life an unfortunate statement the incumbent had made to a Washington-based magazine that "back where I'm from, the idea of an exciting night is to sit around and watch the bug-zapper" using a cast who could have been extras in Deliverance. It was the incumbent who got zapped by voters on Election Day.

An excellent example of a swift media response to capitalize on a completely unexpected shift in momentum was the 1998 third-party campaign of Jesse Ventura. He followed up on a debate performance that marked him as a third-party challenger to be reckoned with in an ad in which the camera panned Rodin's famous image of the Thinker, allowing the viewer to slowly realize that the bronze statue was Jesse himself in body paint. It was a deft and humorous message that Jesse was worth a second look from voters who may not have previously considered him a serious candidate, and it helped keep the momentum moving his way to close the sale. On Election Day, it was clear that there had been a genuine and unexpected grassroots surge in turnout for Jesse, especially among younger men. There is a lesson for many challengers in Jesse's appeal that year. In the debate where he was the clear underdog, he played offense and spoke to the point of bluntness to win votes. Both the Republican and the Democrat fell back on a political version of a prevent defense and spoke largely in a calculated manner in order not to ruffle any hypersensitive feathers of the politically correct. Plain speaking was a rare quality in the Clinton era, and voters found it refreshing.   

Voters watched all of these ads with interest because they were fresh, unexpectedly funny, and on point. Such ads take far more effort to produce, but they also don't cause a significant number of viewers to roll their eyes as they reach for the remote control. The advice to take more time and come up with some fresh approaches applies to positive ads, too. They tend to follow a standard biographical template that isn't memorable, and I suspect they easily disappear into the ad clutter in the local 11 o'clock news well: cookie-cutter ads, both positive and negative, where little changes from race to race other than the names of the candidates. If candidates routinely make visually appealing ads with emotional resonance selling everything from cars to toilet paper to investment brokers, then why aren't there more such ads for conservative politicians?  

From the many clever, handmade signs I have seen at Tea Parties, I suspect a lot of people out there have a natural talent for generating appealing slogans that candidates could put to good use. I doubt the outsiders can do much worse framing issues than some of the so-called experts I have encountered over the years that were sent by state and national Republican campaign committees. 

Some people argue that robo-calls are cheaper than any other method of reaching voters, but what's the point of saving money if the method itself irks the very people a campaign is attempting to woo? There may be a place for robo-calling when there is a genuine game-changing development in the final weekend of the campaign, and it is possible that a significant number of voters won't get the message on time, but multiple calls by different voices to the same set of numbers seems a big mistake to me. So do calls by people who have no significant connection to the local race. If there isn't a less intrusive way to be assured that most potential voters have received the campaign message, make one call only from someone with an obvious local connection. If I were running a campaign in my largely small town and rural congressional district for a citizen-candidate and it was decided that robo-calls should be made, I'd try to use local voices with messages that this is a person they have known for years and whom they trust. I'd also try to get different local people for the small cities and the rural various parts of the district and let them use their own phrasing to keep it as fresh and as local as possible. The landline exchanges are blocked out in such a manner that that this is feasible, 

I love Sarah Palin. I think Fred Thompson is a sweetheart, Dick Armey is a teddy bear and Rudy Giuliani a knight in shining armor. I even have a certain residual fondness for Newt from the 1994 election. I just don't want to come home and find all of them crowded into my voice mailbox the week before an election, and I am not alone in this sentiment. Show me some new tactics to go with the new faces that will be on the ballot in 2010. 

I suspect that the Tea Party people have things to learn from the campaign professionals about subjects like these: completing the process of becoming a candidate; complying with campaign finance reporting rules; time management and efficiently scheduling events, plus the best use of surrogates when trying to cover a large district; establishing position papers to assist in completing questionnaires from the various groups that offer endorsements; media buys; techniques for dealing with journalists, including editorial board endorsements; the fine art of looking professional during a long day that may take a candidate from a morning show in a TV studio to a barnyard to a formal dinner; and the get-out-the-vote process during the final weeks before election day. On the other hand, the campaign professionals really need to listen to many of the Tea Party people about which issues and candidates are likely to resonate with voters in various localities, which standard campaign tactics have lost effectiveness, and what new tactics might be developed.