Summertime--But Don't Take It Easy

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 13, 2014 - 03:17:00 PM

Now that the dust has settled from the June primaries, it’s possible to get a clear look at the political landscape. For those of us who still believe that participation in electing our representatives is a meaningful way to affect the future, there are some lessons we can learn. 

First, polls are less and less reliable. Heading the list of unreliable polls seems to be those used by Republicans. Someone in the polling profession told Eric Cantor that he was so far ahead in his Richmond district that he didn’t even need to come home from DC for election day. His Tea Party opponent, regardless of politics, was so poorly funded that he couldn’t even afford to hire his own pollsters, which turned out to work to his advantage. His people didn’t give up because no one told them they didn’t have a prayer.  

Mitt Romney had the same bad data. One conclusion: smart pollsters don’t work for Republicans. Sorry, folks, but, in the last 40 years at least, just about all the smart people, people who can count, have been Democrats. (This discrepancy is at the root of the periodic “exposés” that the majority of college professors are liberal Democrats. Yes, of course, and…?) 

If only dumb people will work for you, you’ll get dumb data. 

Second, money still counts, but only in some arenas. If the seat in question is in a small enough area with a paucity of places to reach a lot of voters with ads, shoe leather carries a lot of weight. As does the internet, where studies show that most people easily ignore ads (much to the chagrin of those poor souls who are still trying to “monetize” online content.) One-on-one contact, whether at the door, on the phone or online, reaches voters, especially in primaries with minimal turnout (which are most of them).  

This I know from personal experience, having worked in a congressional primary in 1970 for an anti-Vietnam-war Democrat who won against a don’t-stick-our-necks-out establishment Democrat. And this was still in the era when there was a functional daily print newspaper in our small city where ads could be placed. Our candidate couldn’t afford to do much more than shake a lot of hands, but that’s what won him the election.  

Another way of spending money, buying lots of glossy direct mail, doesn’t seem to count as much as it used to either. In the brief period between the demise of the dominant local press and the rise of the internet, mailers were the only way undecided voters could learn about the candidates. Now snail mail has become more and more marginal—even if a voter learns that there’s an election coming up by getting a lovely color photo postcard in the mail, a quick internet search produces more and better information from and about all the candidates.

Television ads in small areas, from congressional districts on down in size, don’t mean much in elections like these because their geographic reach is so unfocussed. Even the candidate with lots of cash to spend suffers the consequences of having only stations with too-wide catchment areas in which to advertise. 

Local appeal is everything. Another escapade from when I was young and reckless (one I’m not sure I’m as proud of now as I was then) involved moving the message around.  

In the early sixties our university town still had residential segregation, and the major issue in the city council election was whether a fair housing law forbidding discrimination should be enacted. The Republicans created special flyers strongly suggesting that they would oppose fair housing, and dropped them only on doorsteps in all-White neighborhoods. Those of us who were civil rights activists just followed after, picked up the flyers, and redistributed them on doorsteps in Black neighborhoods.  

Yes, on reflection, I still think it was a great trick! We won the election—our people turned out in record numbers. 

Is there any advice which could be extracted from these stories for today’s local candidates? Our congressional seat is locked up, largely because Barbara Lee continues to do exactly what the majority of her constituents want. Even an inept incumbent starts with a great advantage, and she does a whole lot better than most. 

This leaves state and city elections.  

The November State Assembly race has been narrowed down by the June Primary to the expected two candidates, both active Democrats. Tony Thurmond has served both on the Richmond City Council and on the West Contra Costa school board. He’s endorsed by an enormous list of elected officials, predominantly but by no means exclusively from Contra Costa County, as well as an impressive assortment of others. This is Elizabeth Echols’ first run for elective office. Her support is mainly from the Berkeley-based Bates/Hancock faction of the East Bay Democratic Party, which has effectively chosen the last four assemblymembers for the district in the era before today’s open primary system. 

Candidates need all the volunteers they can get, to start right now contacting potential supportive voters to make sure they’re registered. The easy availability of early voting is starting to make a big difference. The tactic is to find your folks, make sure they get early voting ballots, and then make sure they fill them out and mail them promptly. Persuasion of undecided voters counts for something, but turnout is everything. By election day, if you’ve done your homework, the election should be over. 

People running in city races should be following the same path, and many are already in motion. Oakland has something like 17 candidates for Mayor. In Berkeley, the hotly contested race will be District 8, where Gordon Wozniak is retiring. There are already four announced candidates (about whom more later) though the filing date is not until August. The other three seats are held by incumbents who will most likely be running again, though no one’s formally announced as yet. 

Anyone who cares about who runs local government should get involved with good candidates right away. Summer feels like the time to kick back, to take a vacation, lie in the hammock--but it’s time to get growing if you want a harvest of votes by the time November comes around.