UnConventional Wisdom: Looking Back to Win in the Future
In honor of the FDP’s dentist endorsed sugar coated retrospective of the 2010 election season, a look at how candidates and campaigns should handle the aftermath of a campaign in preparation for a future campaign.
First, despite amusing quotes projected by some of 2010′s candidates, no campaign is perfect, no campaign is without mistakes, no campaign is without missed opportunities. If you can’t locate your mistakes and missed opportunities, you need to seek help with the process from actual campaign professionals, not sycophants or cronies with titles of professionals, actual professionals.
Second, admitting weaknesses is the only path to correction and (continued or future) success. Often the notion of “protecting morale” is put ahead of admitting weakness, thereby causing the use of excuses. The biggest problem with excuses used to protect morale is that the people projecting them, begin to believe them. Those that are ignorant of the reality of history, including their own, are doomed to screw the constituents of their district again. Please spare us from that – we have too much experience with that already.
In the later stages of a campaign, there is value to morale and the general projection of a positive attitude, in this retrospective time, preceding the next campaign cycle, there is only value in honest assessments that result in improvements for the campaigns to come. However, even in those late stages of campaigns, while projecting confidence and positive attitudes, you must be able to assess your weaknesses as a candidate/campaign and take action to correct those weaknesses or mitigate the impact of those weaknesses on the outcome of the election. This is something that Republicans traditionally do very well and that Democrats typically do terribly, particularly in states of “inbred talent”.
If you ran in 2010 and are considering running again, in 2012 or some other future date, how do you proceed? First you need to start from the beginning, what were the goals set at the start of the campaign, where they the correct goals? Were those goals achieved, where did the campaign come up short? How does the landscape assessment from the start of the campaign match with the reality of what happened during the campaign? Were key factors ignored in the setting of goals or drafting of the landscape memo? What additional goals should have been set and tracked? What goals were set but never measured? Can we go back and measure them now?
Second, look for the most obvious mistakes, identify them and follow the trail thereafter to how many later missteps were caused by that “big mistake”. Identify each individual component of the mistake and think about how you/the campaign could have better handled the situation. Look at both the near and long term effects thereof…such as supporters you had that were lost and the potential future supporters that were lost before they could even be found. Utilizing timelines of different aspects of the campaign can be very helpful, charting fundraising, volunteer hours, voter commitments, event attendance and other measurable aspects of the campaign and then being able to overlay those timelines with the “missteps” as well as the “shining moments.”
Given a thorough assessment of the campaigns goals, mistakes and a complete timeline of the larger events/actions of the campaign, now we can drill down to more specific time usage. In campaigns there are three primary resources:
While many (novice) advisors will focus on the first two, as they are easily measured and leave a direct impression on observers, the most important and the only non-renewable resource is time. You cannot get back time wasted, you can recruit more volunteers and raise more money, but you can’t go back to the beginning and apply those volunteers and money to the campaign retroactively. The easiest time to gain money and volunteers is in the last stage of the campaign, the final 15-90 days preceding election day, they are both infinitely more valuable 91 to 300 days prior to the election.
Look at the candidates time expenditures in the first stage of the campaign, how were the hours of the day consumed in the first weeks and months of the campaign? Was there a staffer or volunteer assisting with the management of time and ensuring that time was utilized efficiently and effectively? Are there notes and reporting of productivity? Did the candidate have tangible goals throughout this early stage or were they flailing around trying to generate support haphazardly? Were long term relationships being built and did those relationships bear fruit later or was time invested that never paid off? Why? Was money being spent in this early stage wastefully?
In most “blow out” campaigns, you will find that the biggest problems occurred in the early part of the process, candidates were not provided with the proper training, knowledge and/or staffing to adequately build an effective campaign — or the candidates rejected that training/knowledge in belief they could do it different. If you as the candidate still believe you can win your race by having a million dollars fall in to your lap from some miracle online action, I can’t help you. If you expect the party (local, state or national) to carry you, raise the money for you, convince people you are worthy of their votes, I can’t help you. If you are ready and willing to do the work, the work starts now.
Through this process one must assess every staff person, from candidate on down to super-volunteers, and assess whether the person was in the right position, up to the tasks and responsibilities they had or would have in an alternate position and whether or not that person should be a significant part of any future campaign involving this candidate or district. Often we are quick to promote people in Democratic campaigns strictly based on the “top line” of their experience, the title they had — we need to look deeper and assess actual competence, talent and whether or not they learned and grew through the experience. Were they provided mentor-ship for moving to the next level? Expecting someone to magically attain the knowledge, training and understanding to do a very intense job through enthusiasm and desire is foolish, and yet common in Democratic campaigns. There are a number of great organizations that provide training like Democracy for America, the New Organizing Institute (new toolbox here), Emily’s List, Wellstone, and of course… MPA Political.
Many of the “powers that be” in the Florida Democratic Party and 2010 statewide campaigns are pushing out the notion that “national messaging” and “factors outside of Florida” doomed the 2010 campaigns in Florida. This is ridiculous. Was National Democratic messaging bad? Yes. Did it have an impact on Florida in 2010? Yes. Was that the most significant reason Florida Democratic candidates got smoked up and down the state and lost the Governorship to an unlikable crook? Hell no. Florida Democrats failed to project any quality messaging while the opposition worked unified effective messaging from early 2009 and through election day 2010. Florida Democrats campaigned for just a portion of the state while Florida Republicans went after the whole state. Fun fact: had every minimally financially viable Democrat running for state house and state senate won, we would still be in the minority in both bodies. In nearly all of the counties Alex Sink lost by 10% or more, we failed to field a candidate at either State House or State Senate. This failure to recruit and even try to compete was extremely costly, we also failed to effectively compete at the Congressional level, even in districts where we fielded quality candidates. Further costly was Democratic candidates being ashamed of Democratic values and attacking Democratic achievements. You didn’t see Republicans, even Tea Party super conservatives, trashing Republican achievements or distancing themselves from the GOP brand. They found ways to provide contrast without projecting embarrassment. If you are running as a Democrat, here’s a newsflash, the Republicans are going to portray you as a raging liberal, whether you are or not. The people who buy that aren’t ever going to vote for you, you can’t win them over by taking stabs at the left or adopting anti-progressive positions on key issues. All you will do is fracture your base and reduce the quantity and quality of volunteer support you will receive. Project strength and confidence in your values, whatever they may be.
None of our statewide Democratic nominees had good messaging post-primary, the first demonstration of effective unified messaging by the slate was 1/8/2011, with the projection of the message that the FDP committed no crimes and endured no investigations under the reign of Chairwoman Karen Thurman. Congratulations on unification, now lets find messaging that doesn’t suck. Being proud to have not (been found to have) committed crimes is the epitome of aiming low.
Nearly all of the emphasis at the 1/8/2011 meeting was put on improving performance in the later stages of campaigning, GOTV, Vote by Mail, etc, where yes, improving systems and strategies for those aspects of campaigning is always good, but problems in those areas can also be a symptom of greater problems in the early stages of campaigning, for which late stage process improvements cannot help. The greatest problems we face are in recruitment and training of candidates AND STAFF and message development and dissemination. Those problems won’t go away because we came up with a killer method of signing people up to vote by mail or a great database for managing volunteers on election day.
Maybe the projections and posturing of the 1/8/2011 meeting was just that – not the realities of the focus of the FDP, just a projection to maintain and improve morale while real changes are being made behind the scenes and honest assessments of mistakes have been made and significant changes are being made to correct those flaws/weaknesses in 2012. But, I’m not optimistic. I’ll wait for my phone to ring, I’m sure the FDP will call me to help train candidates and/or staff any day now…
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