Monday, March 08, 2010

How to Show Momentum, Part One

Political campaigns are processes of milestones. In presidential campaigns, those milestones consist of poll releases, big endorsements, financial reports, debates and state primary results, one after the other. The relative progress demonstrated by candidates is very obvious. In statewide campaigns, all of the above except sequential primary results are also a factor. But in state legislative and County Council races, there are fewer milestones. We are now in a long dry period between two of them: the January financial reports and the Apple Ballot announcement, which took place in June back in 2006. How can candidates show their momentum during a time when few objective measures of their progress are available?

Make no mistake: the appearance of momentum and strength is very important, especially for challengers, open seat candidates and anyone running in a close race. Candidates who look strong find it easier to raise money, pick up supporters and ultimately gain the county’s most important endorsement, MCEA’s Apple Ballot. Some of the county’s politicians have shown that they are true experts in the art of looking good over the last year or two. If you are a candidate and want to show your strength, here is what you should do.

1. Assemble a giant supporter list.
District 17 Senate challenger Cheryl Kagan is the undisputed queen of the supporter list. Way back in June – over a year before the primary – Kagan released a fundraising invitation containing 158 supporters. Just four months later, her list grew to 199 names. Incumbent Jennie Forehand replied with a list of 93 names, but it had three problems. First, 28 of the names were other elected officials. Incumbents are expected to endorse each other. Second, Senator Jamie Raskin (D-20) and former Montgomery College President Charlene Nunley, both of whom were on the list, said that they never gave permission for use of their names. (Nunley said she was supporting Kagan.) And third, one of the people on the list had died prior to its publication. Advantage: Kagan.

County Council District 1 incumbent Roger Berliner also made good use of this tactic. Berliner got wind of a possible challenge from East Bethesda civic leader Ilaya Hopkins last fall, so he began combing through the district asking for support. When Hopkins announced her exploratory committee, Berliner countered with a 158-name supporter list less than two weeks later. In one fell move, Berliner changed the story from Hopkins’s challenge to his own strength as an incumbent, prompting us to declare him the favorite.

Finally, at-large County Council challenger Hans Riemer’s 90-name list started his campaign with a bang. More than one incumbent was upset by it and several phone calls were placed to Riemer supporters in protest. These are signs that Riemer’s campaign is being taken seriously by friends and foes alike.

In building a supporter list, candidates should keep the following in mind. Out-of-state and out-of-district people matter less than in-district people unless they are prominent. (Donna Edwards’s name, for example, goes a long ways outside of Congressional District 4.) In-district opinion leaders may be the most valuable and most overlooked names for a list. If a candidate’s list does not include anyone inside the district, that candidate is probably unknown – a bad sign. Work your districts, people!

2. The bio video.
Nancy Navarro opened her 2009 special election campaign with this video.

District 5 incumbent Valerie Ervin, who will probably not even have a challenger, released this video last fall.

Both videos served two purposes. First, these candidates spoke directly to voters establishing their biographies and goals. Second, they also demonstrated that they were running highly professional campaigns with a range of outreach tools. Any opponent watching these videos would be impressed and perhaps a bit intimidated. Mission accomplished.

3. Guest blogs.
Here is a paraphrased account of a conversation that your author has had with many politicians.

Pagnucco: Have you ever Googled yourself?

Politician X: Not lately.

Pagnucco: If you do, you are likely to find blog posts written about you.

Politician X: Get out! (Googles himself.) Cripes, you need to take that stuff you printed about me down.

Pagnucco: Look at it this way. If a casual voter Googles you and finds blog posts, do you want them to read the rubbish that I write about you, or do you want them to read your own statements about things that you care about?

Politician X: Well, that’s an obvious question. I sure don’t want them reading the awful things you write.

Pagnucco: So give me a guest blog!
MPW does not exist to glorify politicians. (That’s why they spend campaign contributions.) But we have had a longstanding invitation for guest blogs. We do not want posts saying, “I’m great; vote for me!” We do want posts on policy initiatives favored by candidates. Some of the ones we have received have been excellent, such as the submissions from Delegates Heather Mizeur (D-20), Bill Frick (D-16) and Kirill Reznik (D-39) and County Council Member George Leventhal. But nothing beat the four-part series Delegate Saqib Ali (D-39) wrote differentiating his positions from those of Senator Nancy King (D-39). Ali caused a BIG splash with that series and probably raised himself a lot of money because of it – along with a bit of cash for King as well. So if you are a candidate who wants to write about a genuine policy issue, drop us a line.

We’ll have more in Part Two.