Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Next Seattle Mayor and Why He Needs A Ground Game

I had lunch with a politically-minded friend of mine earlier this year and got an earful of his experiences driving to Cleveland and doorbelling for the Obama re-election in October of 2012.  

Bill is a retired lobbyist who helped run political campaigns in Alaska and so is not an easy mark for the glitter in a political campaign but he was knocked senseless by his experiences with the Obama campaign.  He was not surprised by the thousands of volunteers – Obama had nearly 33,000 volunteers in Ohio, a must-have swing state – nor was he surprised about their passionate energy -- he had been around enough campaigns to know the role passion plays.  What he found truly remarkable was the skill the campaign demonstrated targeting, messaging, contacting and turning out voters in the Cleveland precincts he worked.

So, after lunch, I resolved to do some reading about the Obama ground game of 2012 and finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago, reading many of the contemporary descriptions of the campaign, some later analysis and a couple of academic studies.  I also listened to several hours of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics review of the campaign by the leadership of both major campaigns.  If you have a long car trip, this dialogue rivals Fresh Air in spots.  It’s attached.

Pushing away the commentary of some political consultants who claim they never see anything new, I think it is clear that the Obama ground game at least raised the bar and probably more.  It clearly beat the republicans at a game they had owned for as long as I can remember.  At an after election discussion at the Bob Dole Institute, Romney Campaign Political Director Rich Beeson gave full credit to the Obama effort:

“They did alter the electorate,” he said. “The dream of any campaign is to get to a one-on-one ratio of campaign worker contact to individual voter.  They got closer to that than any presidential campaign in history.”

What Beeson means by “altering the electorate” is that the campaign helped bring his 2008 voters back home despite the economy, drew new voters to their candidate through registration and through the actions and words that identified their candidate with Hispanic, young, first time and minority voters.  They then found those voters and helped them turn out and vote for their guy.  For example, Obama’s ground game was responsible for his being the first modern era democratic presidential candidate to win the absentee vote in Florida, in large part because of his strong lead among Hispanic voters there, 61-39.   While the campaign lost North Carolina, Obama increased his black vote there from 95% to 96%.  Overall, the black share of the electorate increased from 11% in 2008 to 15% in 2012.  Obama also appealed to more women than other recent, democratic candidates.  

There is some criticism of the Obama ground game.  Two Harvard academics came up with a formulation that compared the turnout in swing states with the turnout in non-swing states that shared the same media market.  That way, they argue, the only variable measurement of voter behavior would be the ground game.  They say that the Obama campaign turned out 15.4% more voters in swing states than in safe states, but point out that the Romney effort was effective as well, running up the count in swing states by 13.8%.  They conclude that the Obama ground game beat the Republican ground game by a paltry 1.6%.  That doesn’t seem paltry to me.  That translates to nearly 100,000 Obama voters in Ohio, a state Obama won by just 160,000 votes.  Also, their analysis fails to take into account whether the republicans turned out new voters or just those the campaign knew would vote for their candidate anyway.  Nor do they measure individuals who didn’t get turned out.  At the Institute of Politics session, the Romney people were scratching their heads about 250,000 men who didn’t cast a ballot in Ohio, a blow to their campaign because Ohio men were far more likely to vote for a republican. 

This reading, thinking and listening also took me back to my brother’s election, in 1977, when he was a candidate in a crowded field for Mayor of Seattle.  Then it was our fantastic ground game overcoming the considerable financial advantages of our opponents.  In the primary, we were outspent four to one by the candidate who finished third and two to one by the others.  But our lead in volunteers who identified and turned out Royer supporters was so substantial that we carried the day in the primary and the general with fairly large margins.  Today, that experience makes me wonder, in the face of Obama’s recent on-the-ground successes and ours long ago, why the flesh and blood ground game in our municipal politics is now largely abandoned and given over to the electron and the post office.  It makes me wonder what today’s campaign would want more – lots of emails and tweets on a voter’s touch screen and a big, dollar a copy super card in the mail or face-to-face encounters with eager and properly trained volunteers?

There are plenty of reasons why the ground game in municipal elections has all but disappeared.  First, in 1977, nearly everyone went somewhere to vote.  Only a small percentage voted at home in the form of absentee ballots.  Election Day was just that – a single day where nearly everyone voted.  In the 1977 Seattle primary and general elections, just 5% of the votes were cast by absentee voters.  Today, a significant and growing percentage of the vote occurs well-before Election Day.  Florida, Nevada and North Carolina all had a majority of votes cast before Election Day.  In Colorado, just 22% of votes were cast on Election Day!  In 2012, 33% of voters in the United States voted before Election Day, compared to 15% in 2000. 

There is a terrific opportunity when a bunch of people are doing one thing on one day.  You can decide when to contact them and how.  If they need a ride, you have one.  Day care?  Natch.  Hungry?  Today’s more complicated voting causes more complicated logistics.  Large volunteer teams, in place for a couple of long weekends in our day now need to be in place for many days and their care and feeding is no small matter.

Comparisons of the 1977 Seattle electorate with today’s electorate offer other reasons why the ground game is out of favor in Seattle’s municipal elections.  The growing polarity of our political life makes the electorate more easily identified today and makes the outcomes more predictable.  Americans in the seventies were far more prone to be ticket splitters – 31% of Americans then were willing to vote for a broader range of political views.  Today, just 19% are willing to offer their vote to someone from another party.  In fact, I would argue that in Seattle, a very large number of voters were up for grabs.  Republicans in that decade were winning not only state elections, but local ones as well – even in dark blue Seattle.  While municipal elections in Seattle are non-partisan, known republicans held a majority of the city council for parts of the decade of the seventies.  The electoral pickings at the door in 1977 were much greater than they are today.

Money, as ever, is a defining factor.  Most Seattle political consultants today make their money by having several clients at all levels of the electoral food chain and by directing campaign funds to mailings.  They say this is necessary because they want to get mail to voters at the same time the voters receive their ballots in the mail and that there is research showing people tend to vote relatively soon after they get their ballot. Far more important, however, is that consultants make their money from the mailings, taking home a percentage of the mailing and other paid advertising.  And today’s consultants can be very busy, like the Seattle firm in 2012 that had 39 campaigns signed up.  So, busy with many candidates and many mailings, consultants have no time or patience for the hard slog of face-to-face contact and the large numbers of volunteers who make it possible. 

To be in a campaign is to be a member of a tribe. You are part of a culture where each member has made a significant personal investment in the candidate or the idea and, while there is a clear hierarchy in the campaign, this personal investment confers full tribal status.  This allows you and committed colleagues to share fully the considerable highs and lows rising from the campaign’s failures and triumphs.  It means a rich campaign social life built around events and after-doorbelling beers and pizzas.  As the calendar drives you toward a fixed date with an unpredictable result, you and your tribal brothers and sisters live with a blissful anxiety that is a lot like falling in love. 

I am channeling that falling in love feeling because I have so much anxiety about my city’s leadership.  Our police department does not work as well as I remember it working and I get the idea that Mayor McGinn is not standing up to his city charter obligation to be the chief law enforcement officer of the city.  Maybe I hang out with too many people who are involved in planning and development, but from those friends I get the feeling that many feel McGinn should not be the next mayor largely because he has demonstrated he won’t be a problem and won’t challenge a whole lot -- or, even if he does, not for long.

While many wonderful things are happening in Seattle – the possibilities of the waterfront, the reality of South Lake Union, the population growth of the Seattle Schools and the high tech density in my neighborhood, Belltown - I can’t seem to take my eyes off the drug dealers and popcorn pimps on First and Third Avenues, Pioneer Square, the county courthouse and at Westlake.  And I worry about what seems to be more violence toward citizens by my police force and whether the good cops are holding back on aggressive policing because of the criticism of the bad ones. 

The polling results made public so far show Mayor McGinn down in the low 20% nether regions Mayor Greg Nickels inhabited in the weeks before he failed to advance out of the primary four years ago, resulting in the weakest final candidates in memory.  Nickels is the second mayor in a row to have failed in a primary election, Mayor Schell stumbling before him in 2001. 

The list of alternatives today has so far failed to inspire me.  And I'm left with the question of why some of our most accomplished women aren't part of the show.  

Despite the city council’s contempt of the mayor, the number of council candidates has now dwindled to one, Bruce Harrell, a former Washington Husky football player and lawyer and an afro-asian American.  While being a council member is no guarantee of success – 14 council members have tried and failed to become mayor since 1969 and only one has become mayor -- and that one on a second try.  There was a second candidate from the council, Tim Burgess, but he dropped out just four hours before the filing deadline.  A thoughtful and mature guy, he somehow became convinced that his candidacy would not be successful and would lead to McGinn’s re-election.  He was the fundraising leader – the Royer family purse is far lighter today as a result of his candidacy – but he suffered a Hamlet moment when it came time to actually sign up.  Better Hamlet at the filing deadline, I guess, than at some future crunch time in the mayor’s office with a lot on the line.

Peter Steinbrueck is a former city council president and son of a prominent Seattle preservationist, Victor Steinbrueck.  Though not much of a fundraiser, his family name is useful and is connected with saving the Pike Place Market from a ridiculous development plan rolled out in the late sixties.  Peter is much like his father, sometimes abrupt, loud and argumentative and a moment later absolutely charming.  Steinbrueck is feared by many in the development community who see his vision for the city is too small scale.  That was his Dad too.  But Peter knows the campaigner’s job.  At a recent forum with all the candidates present, he was shaking hands with the audience while the rest of the candidates sat with the moderator and studied their notes.  Peter was last to leave the crowd for the stage and first off it.
Ed Murray is a state senator whose most recent accomplishment is the successful ballot measure that allowed gay marriage in Washington state.  Few measures have had the success of this referendum.  It passed overwhelmingly in the city and passed by ten votes to one in the district Murray represents, the 43rd.  And, it may be the moment for a gay mayor.  Nearly 13% of the city’s population is LGBT.  It’s hard not to see Murray as one of the finalists with his strong and recent marriage  constituency.  But Murray is stuck in Olympia in another endless session and it’s against the law for legislators to raise money while the body is still in session.  It might be mid-July before the legislators leave Olympia, leaving just one month for Murray to raise the money needed to run a quality primary campaign.  Legislators, like council members, seem to have a tough time becoming mayor.  The last was Wes Uhlman in 1969.

A 70 year old real estate manager, Charlie Staadecker, is the last major candidate challenging the mayor, and has raised considerable money while being charming and fresh.  So far, however, he has not broken out.   

Bruce Hilyer, who later became a fine Superior Court Judge here, ran the Royer campaign’s grass roots effort in 1977.  He had grown up partly in southern Illinois where his uncle was a state senator.  Getting out your supporters and those you’ve convinced to become your supporter is a way of life in Illinois and Hilyer brought a little bit of Illinois vote collection culture to Seattle.  

As the campaign progressed, a growing number of Hilyer trained volunteers were identifying Royer voters by phone and by foot in the 1000 plus Seattle precincts.  Each voter was given a number-- one, two or three.  We called the ones Saints, supporters of our candidate and ready to go somewhere and vote for him. Our doorbellers gave the number two to those who were not quite ready to say they wanted to vote for our guy.  We called them Savables.   The ones who identified at the door or on the phone that they thought our candidate was akin to a bucket of warm spit, we called Sinners.  We made sure to turn out the Saints, we bombarded the Savables with literature, more doorbellers and phone calls and ignored the Sinners.  

The volunteers would bring back a little poll each night based on conversations with voters that proved remarkably accurate. We could see that we were winning every day which gave us the confidence to do things differently, like mailing a fundraising appeal a day before the primary election so it would arrive with the news that we were winning.  It was a marvelously successful mailing.

By primary election night we had highly trained coordinators and backups in each of the nine legislative districts making up the city and 98 sub-district coordinators supporting another 1500 volunteers working our campaign’s priority precincts and even had enough people to send to precincts way down the priority list.  It was an amazing day.

None of today’s campaigns has anything like the grass roots ground game candidate Royer fielded, but I’m beginning to believe that while there are challenges to fielding a strategy like it today, there could are also substantial rewards. 

In fact, Mayor McGinn was successful four years ago because he was able to deploy a pretty good ground game staffed by young, environmental activists.  Nobody else in that campaign had much on the ground.  Nobody seemed to notice it but it was big enough to overcome the advantages of better funded and better known candidates.  

One day, someone will take Obama’s voter ID technologies and have an inspirational candidate who can attract large numbers of volunteers and blow by the competition and the cookie cutter campaigns of the consultants.  This will be true because personal contact is the most effective way to appeal to the growing number of Seattle ethnic voters, increasingly where the electoral action is in a city that 50 years ago was 93% white.  The three large ethnic groups, led by Asians, then Blacks and then Hispanics now total 30% of the vote  Alone, that’s enough to make it to the finals in a crowded primary. When combined with the wave of young voters finding their way to Seattle and the smorgasboard of specially interested voters – gays, techies, bikies and the like, a new majority is ready for a candidate in Seattle.  All the candidate must do is find a way to their door before the other guy. 

Presidential Election Discussions (Scroll down to bottom of page for the general election)

Cool New Yorker Piece on the Obama Ground Game