Sunday, February 11, 2007

What Every So Called Political Professional Needs to Know

Do you ever hear a phrase or a saying that just sticks with you? The kind of thing that keeps popping into your head at the weirdest times? Here is the story of one that should be first and foremost in the minds of every one who considers themselves a political professional.

I was standing in this room with a bunch of disgusted Democrats. It was early in 2003. They were still pissed off about the 2000 election fiasco in Florida. And they were absolutely steaming about the governors race that was so badly handled in 2002.

It was the 2000 elections that they were using as a rallying cry. The number 537 played a prominent part in this discussion. There was no crying over the spilt milk of 2002 here. This was all about 2004, and the lessons learned in 2000 and not applied in 2002.

It was a pretty interesting group. There was a County Commissioner whose mother was to run for the US Senate and who is now, herself, a newly minted Congresswoman. There was a former County Commissioner who ran a valiant but unsuccessful Congressional campaign in 2006. The campaign manager for the incumbent Congressman was there. There were some dudes there, but none of us were as impressive as the women in the room.

The matriarch of this group was the mother of the successful attorney who had graciously offered up her home for the evening. One of the interesting things we did that night was to go around the room and offer up our reasons for being a Democrat. That's a story for another time. As we were about to wrap up for the night, the matriarch said she wanted to leave us with something to think about.

Our matriarch was, at that time, a recently retired County Commissioner. She did not stay retired for long. She is now a very successful County Clerk. She wanted to leave us with something that had stuck with her for a very long time. It was something that was told to her by someone we all knew. This fellow was a former teacher and a union leader. He became a Mayor and then a Governor. He wasn't with us that night because he had changed teams in the midst of his rise to political fame and fortune.

There were a lot of people in that room that night who had won, and lost, a lot of elections. But they all nodded when our matriarch relayed this pearl of wisdom to us:

If you have a dozen committed volunteers, you can win any election.

Now those of you who have worked on large campaigns are probably shaking your head at the perceived naivete of that statement. But think about it for a second. This wasn't a statement from some dude who just got elected dog catcher. He had been elected and re-elected as a union leader. He was the mayor of a major city. He was the governor of a significant state. If you still don't get it, maybe you should take up another profession.

At the end of the day, in a close election, what is going to make the difference? In my mind it is the ability to get more of your voters to the polls than the other guy does. In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, 538 more Democratic voters would have changed the history of the world. That's less than 10 votes in each county in Florida. Or for your dozen volunteers, less than 45 successful calls per person.

But the real power of the dozen volunteers is not just the work they do directly. It is the dozen volunteers recruited by each of them, and the dozen volunteers recruited by each of those volunteers. It is the fact that these dozen volunteers believe in you that sustains you. So let's not let these dozen volunteers down again.

Let's not ever lose another election because we did not put enough resources into our ground game. Remember what a difference 538 votes would have made in 2000. For all the mistakes of the Kerry campaign in 2004, they got that lesson, sorta. They got more Democratic votes to the polls than any other candidate in history. Their problem there was that the other guy did better than they did. Who'd a thunk it?

The 2006 election cycle was one that saw many wonderful victories for our team. But I keep thinking about the one we let get away. We faced a daunting challenge. Our opponent would raise and have spent more money on his behalf than in any other campaign in the country that cycle. He had run several statewide races before. This was our guy's first try at statewide office. And we were not going to get close in the money raising department.

Still for all that, we were closing at the end. We could have won this one. So why didn't we? We did not get more of our voters to the polls than the other guy did. At the end of the day that is the only story that matters. Our team made a conscious decision to put as much of the money as they possibly could into television. It's a huge state after all. You can't win statewide in Florida playing retail politics they said.

Well, they were wrong. You can do it. One of our greatest campaigners walked throughout the entire state. Another went out and spent days working ordinary jobs with ordinary people. That's retail politics folks. And ground is cheap. Ridiculously cheap. But that is where you leverage those 12 committed volunteers. You pay your organizers to look after their care and feeding and to give them some direction. Then you get out of the way and let them do their thing.

You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement. Arlo Guthrie, Alice's Restaurant.


bkirby816 said...

From an organizational standpoint, I don't disagree with this post. In fact, it's right on the money. The volunteers that do the real hands-on work of a campaign are vital, critical, really.

But all the volunteers in the world won't work unless you have something at the very heat of the campaign. Two things, catually. Campaigns are about a couple of things, at least in this day and age: the human story of the candidate and an easy to digest message.

For example, the story of the Man from Hope (or the Comeback Kid) and "it's the economy, stupid." George W. Bush beat Kerry in 2004 not so much because his story and/or message was better, but because he defined Kerry's story for him (swiftboated him). That, and Kerry bogarted fifteen million when he could've dropped it in Ohio.

Right on, though -- everyone should volunteer their time to campaigns for 2008, state, local, or national.

gatordem said...

If you don't have a candidate with a compelling personal story and an easy to digest message, you are not likely to have the dozen volunteers either.

I can not disagree with a single word you said.

Michael Hussey said...

The advise came from Betty Castor who got it from Bob Martinez. No names in the post, but pretty easy to piece together. Kathy Castor is going to make a great Congresswoman.

gatordem said...


Close but no cigar. The advice was from Bob Martinez, but was relayed by Pat Frank. :)