Thursday, May 07, 2009

What Does the Special Election Mean for Campaigning in Montgomery County?

By Eric Luedtke.

Innovation in political campaigning has a tendency to trickle down. Changes appear first at the national level, where the money and talent is most concentrated in politics, and then slowly make their way down to the state and local level. Sometimes it takes a while. The era of TV attack advertising in national politics began way back in 1964 with Johnson's Daisy Ad, which implied that Barry Goldwater was an absolute nut bent on world destruction. But the first intense use of TV attack ads in Montgomery County politics was only three years ago, when Steve Silverman's campaign called Ike Leggett a 'good guy with bad ideas', trying to avoid attacking the integrity of a widely respected man while questioning his positions. In that case, of course, the attack ad didn't stick.

The biggest lesson I draw from the Democratic primary for the 4th Council District special election is that this trickle down process is accelerating. Only a year ago, the Obama campaign managed to perfect a number of new political techniques which had emerged over the past decade. And many of these same techniques, used of course on a smaller scale, helped propel Nancy Navarro to a close victory over a formidable opponent. The irony is that the technology that helps underlie many of these innovations may be the same reason they are trickling down more quickly. Information of all kinds has become more democratized, and the insider secrets of the Obama campaign weren’t so much kept secret as advertised and taught to thousands of people.

Attentive observers of politics will realize that these changes are going to have profound effects on the local political scene. Many of my friends who have been active in Montgomery County politics for a long time believed that Ben Kramer was a lock in the recent special election. Why? The traditional reasons. Name recognition, especially given Kramer's family name. Money. The demographic makeup of the district. Strong support for Kramer in Leisure World. More than one of them denigrated the Navarro campaign as "a bunch of people sitting in a room crunching numbers."

But Navarro pulled out a victory. Based on the special election, these are some of the things I'll be thinking about as the 2010 election approaches:

1. Microtargeting is Cheap and Effective

Everyone knows that the best way to get a vote is to address a specific person’s interests in detail. This is why good canvassing is always a better investment than mail – it allows the canvasser to immediately adapt their pitch to the needs of the voter. But limited resources have meant that at the local level, few campaigns are able to keep track of the detailed voter files that allow for microtargeting to occur. This has changed. With the advent of the Maryland Democratic Party VAN database, which has some (far too) limited utility in tracking voter information, and some similar private databases, campaigns have a lot more information than the basic name, address, and voting history that the election board provides. Special election case in point – there are no more than a couple dozen French-speaking households of West African descent with registered Democrats in District 4. Each of them got a postcard, in French, from the Navarro campaign. In a world where every vote counts, those postcards pound for pound are a lot more effective for a campaign than a piece that tries to tailor its messaging to an entire diverse district of voters.

2. The Internet is the Local Campaign's Friend

The era of local political blogging in Montgomery County began just before the 2006 cycle, and there was some use by candidates of technology to reach out to voters. But the former were underdeveloped and the latter were limited to things like e-mail lists that provided another forum to pursue the same tactics. Just a few years later, Facebook and Twitter have taken off, e-mail targeting has become more efficient, and there are millions more people like me who get more information from blogs (I regularly read at least 7) than newspapers (I regularly read 2). I have yet to see a local campaign make really good use of social networking sites, but I think we saw a profound difference between the way the Navarro campaign treated bloggers – as real media targets in the same way they pursue reporters – versus how the Kramer campaign treated bloggers – as, well, bloggers. There are plenty even in politics who still think of blogging with contempt but I’ll just say this – although Adam may not have as much circulation as the Washington Post, he’s able to cover politics in a hell of a lot more depth than Ann Marimow or more traditional reporters. At least until the baby’s born, when all of us go into withdrawal. Serious point, though: local politicians now ignore the importance of blogs and other electronic media as messaging outlets at their own peril.

3. County Demographics Are Changing

I grew up on a Montgomery County street where there were four non-white families. I live now on a Montgomery County street where there are no more than two families of any single ethnicity. White, south Asian, east and west African, African-American, Hispanic, east Asian. Montgomery County is becoming increasingly diverse despite the nativist histrionics of some right wingers. This will profoundly change our politics. The lagging indicator will be the diversity of the elected politicians in the county, but in the meantime local politicians are having to quickly learn to reach out to multiple groups at once. I asked a friend of mine who thought Kramer was going to win a few days before the election what he based that on, and the answer was simple – Jewish voters and the elderly. He said all Kramer had to do to win was come out on top in Leisure World and Kemp Mill. A day or two later, I walked into a Navarro campaign office and there were volunteers in their 60’s and volunteers who were 6. There were volunteers of every imaginable nationality or ethnicity. And each of them has pull with a different subset of the voting public. In an increasingly pluralistic electorate, getting elected will mean reaching out to increasing numbers of smaller and smaller groups.

4. Montgomery County Will Tolerate Negative Campaigning

I’ve had more than one person from another part of the state comment on how they think people from Montgomery County are stuck up, and I’ve always fought them on it. But there are some ways in which it’s true, where Montgomery residents think of themselves as special. The idea that voters in Montgomery County don’t respond to negative campaigning is one of those ways. Like elsewhere, our voters don’t like negative campaigning in the abstract but it can still be effective in undermining the other side. Notice I said can be. Like any other form of campaigning, negative campaigning can backfire or simply fail. The "attack" ads that went after Ike Leggett a few years ago were one such example – they just didn’t resonate with voters because their message was too nuanced. The mailing from the Navarro campaign was a little more effective. But it was bolstered by the Kramer campaign and Ben Kramer himself, who actually drew more attention to the negative attacks by being defensive about them. Word to the wise – prolonging the story about criticisms of your candidate by talking and sending out mailers about them for the remainder of the campaign is probably not the best way to deal with negative attacks. In any case, given the perceptions about this race, I expect slightly more negative campaigning in 2010, and some entertainingly flubbed attempts at it from some of the less well run campaigns.