By Frank Blechman
What’s most annoying to you about politics today? What turns you off? Is it the robocalls? The slick mailers? The negative (attack) ads? Soundbites substituting for conversation? The endless appeals for donations ($3 before midnight tonight to help us meet our goals)? The merchandising (t-shirts, mugs, hats, pennants, pins)?
None of these do us proud.
Why do all these exist? Because they work.
Here’s the problem. Most voters do not pay attention to elections in the “off” (non-presidential) years. Here in the Washington region, where so many people are focused on the federal government, national, and international issues, state and local matters get limited coverage in the regional media. In Fairfax County, where episodes of scandal and violent crime are rare, the media are even less inclined to show up. Voters are largely content that everything here is running at least OK. No local crisis puts the local elections at the top of anybody’s to-do list. Unless heavily prodded, most will not vote. Therefore, a candidate who wants to win needs to make contact with voters at least 20 times in the last 60 days before the election.
A word about scale. We all know that there are over 5.5 million people in the DC metropolitan area. Fairfax County alone has nearly 1.2 million residents. For Fairfax, that means we have almost 750,000 registered voters in over 500,000 households. To mail just one postcard to each household costs more than $300,000. Each of Fairfax’s nine magisterial districts has over 65,000 voters in 45,000 households. Mailing one postcard to each of these costs more than $25,000. State Senate districts are bigger than a magisterial district. House of Delegates districts are smaller. Yet, even a delegate district is too large for a candidate to personally visit every neighborhood in a year. The cost for multiple contacts with voters goes up quickly.
How can candidates develop … intimate, trusted relationships with tens of thousands of people? The real answer is that candidates can’t.
We all want to believe that our elected officials know us and care about us, or at least are like us in some ways. How can candidates develop these kinds of intimate, trusted relationships with tens of thousands of people? The real answer is that candidates can’t. All their personal effort may result in contact between a candidate and a few thousand individuals. That’s significant, but still a fraction of what’s needed to win. Incumbents have had more time to build their relationships. They may have touched two or three times as many people as their challengers. Incumbents generally can raise more money, too.
So, if a candidate cannot touch enough people directly, he or she has to rely on indirect outreach. Social media, text messages, and other forms of e-campaigning cost less than the conventional tools, but their impact is still largely unproven. Mail pieces, campaign literature (including signs, stickers, etc.), phone messages, appearances by surrogates, organizational endorsements, and free media have to provide that extra push.
And, all that extra stuff costs a lot of money.
Drama. Years ago, marketers figured out that before the virtues of a product could be sold, you had to get the customer’s attention. Tabloids discovered that stories about celebrities sold well. Announcements that a beloved celebrity was suffering some terrible tragedy (about to die) sold better. “My opponent is an axe murderer” or “the sky is falling” message is the political equivalent. In the final weeks of the fall campaigns, I received dozens of emails shouting, “Our campaign is doomed unless you donate $3 by midnight tonight.” That is total baloney, but it sounds dramatic and gets attention. Really, monthly, weekly, or daily fundraising goals matter only to the fundraisers whose jobs depend on meeting those goals. Yes, campaigns need money, but I have never seen any campaign that rose or fell because it came up $3 or even $3,000 short of a single goal. Drama may deliver contributions in the short term, but it costs candidates in credibility and attention in the longer term (ask chicken little).
What can you do? If you don’t like the nonsense of political campaigns, what can you do?
- First, don’t support campaigns or candidates using “the sky is falling” or “my opponent is a crook” messages. Tell candidates you are unimpressed by the hysterical appeals. If enough people stop responding, the use of these techniques will diminish quickly.
- Second, volunteer. A real person talking to your friend or neighbor is much more effective than any other form of political communication, except personal contact with the candidate. If you deliver a piece of literature as a volunteer, you have made an in-kind contribution of $0.50 each time, offsetting the cost of postage or paid canvassers. If you put up a sign in your yard or a sticker on your car, you are generating a message worth somewhere between $50-100. Your letter to the editor of a local paper, or your call-in to a radio talk show, is worth at least $50-100, compared to what the same message would cost via paid advertising.
- Third, support campaigns and candidates that make an effort to present a serious, positive vision of the future that realistically connects the needs you see with solutions you can understand. I list this third only because no candidate is perfect in this regard and even a well-managed positive-issue-focused campaign costs a lot of money, and will have to ask for it repeatedly (and annoyingly).
I have not talked here about changing campaign finance laws to restrict donations or provide public support for candidates. I’m agnostic about how effective such systems can be. We have seen how clever people have found and used the loopholes in existing campaign finance laws. And Virginia being Virginia (that is, essentially libertarian), I don’t expect effective campaign regulation any time soon.
Nonetheless, I have faith that if we want to, we can make politics more attractive and less annoying.