Political Conventions

In the last thirty years, I have attended a number of California  state-wide political conventions, mostly because my late wife, Pat Wiggins, was an active politician and officeholder.  Much useful work was done at these conventions on identifying public policy ideas and in developing relationships, but they had very little effect on the selection of the Party’s nominees for the various state offices.  But there was a time when conventions mattered…

In the summer of 1956, my family had just moved into our new home on Watt Avenue in Sacramento, right across from the bowling alley.    My father had just surprised the family by bringing home a new television set to replace the cheap Kenwood model we had left behind in Beaumont, Texas.   It was a surprise, because Dad had been reluctant to purchase any kind of TV set until about a year before we left Beaumont, and even then he brought home the cheapest possible model.   When we got to Sacramento, and he brought home the Zenith, my sister and I were stunned.

It turned out that my father had an ulterior motive for his uncharacteristic investment in popular culture.  He was a big supporter of Adlai Stevenson, and he wanted to watch the Democratic Convention to see if Stevenson was going to get a chance to lose again to Eisenhower.

I was captivated by the Convention.   (My sister, who was only eight, was not.)  In those days, you had a choice between NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley or CBS’s Walter Cronkite.   My father was a Huntley and Brinkley fan, and for four days we watched them every chance we got.   We listened to the speeches – Civil Rights was in the air, but support was muted because of the Democrat’s need to hang on to the supposedly Solid South.  We heard famous men being interviewed from the floor, people like Harry Truman and Averill Harriman ( a Double Dactyl, but unfortunately, Harriman is too obscure these days for me to write one making fun of him.).

When the roll of state was called for the Presidential nomination on the third day, there was real drama, because no one could firmly predict what would happen.   As the roll call went on, I kept score, as though I were at a baseball game, and when the tide started to turn clearly towards Stevenson, I got so excited that I jabbed the point of my pencil into my palm. ( I still have traces of graphite embedded under the skin.)

We need to find a way to make politics engaging again, instead of distancing.   We should probably start by celebrating people like Elizabeth Warren. who stand for something besides positioning themselves to do well in a partisan primary.

My First Guest Post

https://writingclimatechangebackintohistory.wordpress.com/guest-bloggers2/

It’s about Climate Change Politics..

Do Unto Others…

If we have a representative democracy in this country, that means, or should mean, that elected officials are the representatives of the people – they take our place, and represent our interests and well-being.

One of the most pernicious ideas to gain currency in my lifetime is the notion that there is something inherently corrupting about being an elected official.   Pete Schbarum’s Proposition 140 did immeasurable harm to this state, not only by making it more difficult for California to have a professional, experienced Legislature, but also by gratuitously enhancing the power of the Governor’s office.  ( With a few exceptions, California’s Governors have not been noted for their vision and leadership.)

Instead of running down elected officials and making “politician” a term of obloquy, we should be treating our elected officials with the same respect we ourselves would wish to be treated.  And we should expect them to be skilled professionals, and pay them accordingly.  (Careful academic studies have shown that the most professional legislatures are the most responsive legislatures, contrary to right-wing myth.)

Governance is hard; it is not a job for amateurs, as Arnold Schwartznegger amply demonstrated.

You’ve Got to Know the Territory

[See my earlier post on polling here]

Candidates in down-ticket races have  a problem – they need professional help to run their campaigns, but, unless they are independently wealthy, they usually  can’t afford the price of a professional political consultant.  For small cities (in my area of California, we have a number of incorporated cities with a population less than 4000), it is possible to talk and get to know each and every voter, but for larger municipalities, like my own city of Santa Rosa with an acknowledged population of around 175000 people, it is essentially impossible.

What are candidate for low-profile but important offices like the Santa Rosa City Council to do?  I have spent a large amount of time over the last twenty-five years trying to help local candidates deal with this problem.  And, as a result. I have a pretty good feel for the political landscape of this part of the world,  But I am just one person, and the need is great (every two years).  Some candidates, as you might expect, hire consultants from out of the area.   Often this works fine – because the outside consultants have the sense to associate themselves with people who know the area.  But there have been a number of races (I name no names) that have been badly screwed up because the consultants did a poll and failed to understand what the undecided electorate was like.

Two Polls are Better Than One

As I said in my first post on this subject, there  are times when an underfunded local campaign is better off doing two or more simple polls rather than one large, more complicated and more expensive poll.   Sometimes, this is because knowing how a particular message is doing with the electorate over time is extremely important; sometimes it’s just that polls can be used as fundraising tools.

In 2006,  I ran a campaign for Supervisor in northern Sonoma County.   The campaign had three major problems:

  • We were running against an entrenched incumbent.
  • My client was under treatment for a serious illness throughout the campaign.
  • The campaign did not get underway until mid-January, less than six months before the June primary election which would be decisive, since there were only two candidates.

[Now a small digression:  the margin of error on a sample size of 100 randomly-selected voters is roughly +or – 10%,   My experience working with volunteer poll takers is that 100 completed calls within a window of 3 to 4 days is about the practical limit (and even then I usually had to supplement the volunteers with a few paid callers.)  This is the kind of poll I am referring to when I talk about the 2006 campaign.]

When you have reports coming in from all parts of a district  every day ( and we did), you develop a pretty good rough sense of how you are doing.  With about six weeks remaining, we became pretty sure that we were rapidly closing the gap on the incumbent.   The problem was,  we were also rapidly running out of money, and if things didn’t improve, we might not be able to afford all the voter communication we had planned.

The solution: a 100 likely voters poll every week for four weeks, at a total cost of around a thousand dollars.   We didn’t poll to find out how well our message was working, or to find out how best to attack our opponent.   Instead, our goal was to develop proof that we were closing the gap and to use that information in a fundraising push.  The plan worked beautifully – the poll results were just as we expected, and our candidate was able to use the information in fundraising calls.  In the end, we lost by around 200 votes out of more than fifty thousand cast.

 

A Poll is a Snapshot of the Electorate

In an earlier post,  I talked about how  I got into polling for local elections, and gave a ;ist of key points about polls that local candidates should know.   This is the first of several posts in which I will elaborate on that list.  (Note: In all my posts on polling, I assume that the voters polled are random se;ections from the target universe.)

A poll is a snapshot of the electorate at a given point in time; it is not, by itself, a way to predict the outcome of an election.  An experie3nced political adviser, who understands the background of the poll and the local political situation may be able to use the information obtained from a poll to make an informed guess as to whom the winner or winners might be, but the poll itself merely tells you who might be ahead at the time of the poll.  Of course, if a candidate is twenty points ahead of his or her  opponent two weeks before election day, one can reasonably infer that that candidate will win, but the poll is not really doing the prediction; it is the context.

Polls have other uses for local candidates besides calling the horse race.   Polls can tell a candidate which campaign themes resonate with the voters; they can also tell which of your supporters are more attractive to the electorate.   The wise candidate for, say, City Council, will focus on these aspects of polling and not on the question of who is the frontrunner.