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.


Turnout Issues

If you talk to people about politics these days (and of course, I do), you’ll hear a lot of verbal hand-wringing about the fact that people don’t vote, even when it’s in their best interest to do so. In my view, part of the problem is that voting is too hard, and voters have to do too much of it.

If you have spent any significant time talking with voters at the door (and of course, I have), you’ll have heard the complaints: “I need help.” “I don’t know how to vote on propositions X, Y and Z.” I don’t know how to vote on the Judge’s races.” And so forth. Continue reading