Monday, October 19, 2015

Down Ticket Races - Why Challengers Sometimes Must Spend More

I often get asked by my candidates why it seems to be costing them more than the competition to run. In fact, they sometimes get downright testy about it. "Why am I spending twice as much as Joe? In fact, Joe isn't doing anything at all, except a few signs. Why should I bother? Our feedback from people at the door is great. We look stupid spending big money in this small water board/school board/Town Council race."
Then I must explain to the candidate the realities of being a challenger. "Sally," I say, "Joe is the incumbent. Joe has automatic name recognition from his 15 years in office, not to mention that all important I in front of him name on the ballot. In other words, Joe doesn't need to do anything. The election is his to lose."

And lost it  may well be if Sally is willing to work harder, walk and phone more and yes, spend more money. No one knows your name. She has never held public office. Yes, she has gone to every meeting of the board since 2005, but so what? Her and three other people. And where are they, by the way I ask? How much have they donated to your campaign? Are they out walking with you? Are they making phone calls? (Probably not, because the candidate never asked. How you can run for office and still be the shyest person in the room has always been a mystery to me.)

"But I have my signs in all the best locations," protests Sally. "People like my walk piece. My first mail went out the same time as the sample ballot. Of course people know my name by now. All my friends say so. People are beginning to talk about how much more money I am spending than Joe. What about campaign finance reform?"

Absolutely, we believe in campaign finance reform. Campaigning should not be a sport for the rich. The playing field must be leveled. But we have to deal with reality. Reality says you have to take your message to the voters several times in several different ways.

"So, yes," I say patiently, "your first mailer was great. But it will be forgotten when people go to the polls without some reinforcement. Your signs are fine, but they don't tell anyone anything about you, and they are just one in a sea of signs along the roadway. Walking is wonderful, and if you could get to every door in the district and talk to every frequent voter, you'd be in like Flynn (whoever he is), but you have 2000 doorhangers, and there are 9000 frequent voter doors.

"And yes, you are doing well in debates; you have good endorsements. But if no one hears the debates, or sees the endorsements because let's face it, they don't read the newspapers like they used to. Facebook is a tiny percentage of your voting base and. your friends, God love 'em, are just that, your friends, not the average voter who will make up his mind on or close to election day. That person needs a reminder. That person needs that second mailer from you, in their hand."

"Oh," answers Sally. Then she either agrees to make a few more phone calls and raise that last bit of money for one small mailer to poll voters, (and these days, the poll voter universe is small, with most people opting to mail their ballot in), or she shrugs and says, "Nah, it's ok. I feel really good about it."  And who knows, she may be right. But in my experience, dear candidate, it is just not worth the risk.

So, yes, our candidates in down ticket races do frequently spend more, sometimes a lot more, than the competition. But only when they have to. Only when the competition is an incumbent, or someone with great name recognition, or there is a major controversy about which they disagree. In those cases, not spending that extra cash may well lose you the seat that you are so well suited for, because the ones who need to know, the voters, never got the message.