Conventional Un-Wisdom – Scheduling

Conventional Un-Wisdom: As a candidate, you need to meet as many people as possible, you should have as many events scheduled each day as is possible.

This one is found on campaigns of all budgets, from the most experienced to the greenest candidates. For some candidates, this is a matter of style/choice or as a counter to a perceived or actual weakness. For whatever reason, schedulers tend to squeeze as many events/meetings on the calendar as possible, putting the candidate in intended or accidental tardiness perpetually.

The contrast of two extremes can be seen looking at the Republican Presidential nominating contest in Iowa 2007/8, particularly between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

Mike Huckabee in Council Bluffs, IA - 2007
Mike Huckabee in Council Bluffs, IA – 2007

Romney’s campaign resembled the average Iowa effort for a wealthy/well funded candidate, spending upwards of $40 Million in Iowa. His family had an RV, they had buses, they used planes, they crammed in five to nine events/meetings crisscrossing the state every day. Huckabee’s campaign more resembled the thrifty couch to couch model set forth by Jimmy Carter. Spending less than five million in Iowa, Huckabee typically had only two to four events in a day, staying at each until he had shaken every hand and spoken to every Iowan who showed up. This proved to be effective for Huckabee, with him winning Iowa netting 34% of the vote, besting Romney by ten thousand caucus goers, or roughly 9% more of the record turnout 120,000.

Huckabee is an incredibly gifted campaigner, with exceptional memory and recall of the people he meets along the trail. He is known to recall and ask people about the things they had mentioned to him at the previous month’s (or longer past) event in their town, demonstrating exceptional empathy in the process. No one expects this level of performance from candidates, but it is a phenomenally effective club to have in your bag.

Why do schedulers and campaigns in general function in a consistent fifteen minutes “behind schedule” state? Typically, people don’t get to an event and settled in until at or shortly after the scheduled time. This can lead to candidates showing up to partially (or completely) empty rooms, which makes for embarrassing pictures and bruised egos. Now, if you have talented, well trained organizers, they can plan and execute the events without anyone noticing or caring that the candidate wasn’t there at the scheduled start time. You want your candidate to walk in to a full room, you want him to spend a few moments in private with the host/hosts of the event, and you want him to be introduced to the room (both formally and during mingling) by a local endorser (possibly the host). All of these things can be accomplished without leaving the attendees feeling like the campaign is behind schedule.

Michael J Fox 2006 MO-Sen

As for scheduling, one of the first challenges is making commitments weeks or months in advance of events and then having additional events crop up at the same time, possible great distances apart. I will seldom support a candidate breaking a commitment to attend some other groups event. One way to alleviate this problem is to develop a strong network of surrogates, unpaid supporters of the campaign that can speak passionately in support of the campaign and have sufficient local, regional or national recognition and credibility to benefit the campaign. This could range from one the candidate’s school teachers who has also taught a significant portion of the community in which they are speaking to another elected official (Member of Congress, Mayor, Governor, Sheriff, etc) to a true celebrity. Michael J. Fox speaking out in support of Claire McCaskill on the issue of Stem Cell Research was a major component of McCaskill’s victory of the 2006 Missouri Senate Race.

If you have a network of surrogates developed, preferably with them sorted by capacity/issue specialties, you can then distribute them to events as needed, allowing the candidate to be more selectively utilized without alienating key allied organizations. As the campaign season nears the end, more events will crop up in conflict with one another, by this time, the campaign must have a variety of experienced spokesmen to represent the campaign at events. Whether it is the candidate, surrogate or staffer speaking, you should always record what is said on behalf of the campaign. Review of the recordings may allow you to correct a small issue before it becomes a big story or to effectively refute a bogus claim made by the opposition.

Many campaigns function on 3, 5, or 7 day scheduling – I prefer a minimum of ten day scheduling. If a candidate doesn’t have a “dinner time” commitment on the schedule 10 days out, I have them eat dinner with a random supporter in a targeted precinct. The supporter can invite neighbors, co-workers, whatever is their preference, but with little stress, keeping the expectations and logistics minimal. The candidate can then sit, be themselves, and build relationships with voters they may have never otherwise reached. With a near zero cost to the campaign, these types of informal events can be very effective, particularly in the early stages of the campaign. Rather than trying to hit every media market and region of your district each day, aim to hit each once per week, spending quality time in each region, hitting multiple earned media opportunities in each.

Events more than ten days in advance should be well researched, both the event in question and any other potential items on the calendar in that time frame. Be sure to get multiple opinions and data points on potential external events, often the hosts will oversell their event to get a commitment. If the event drew 75 people last cycle, 75 the cycle before that, and 75 six years ago, its probably going to draw about 75 this time too. Who are those 75 people? People you have had extensive contact with and no results? People who are unlikely to support your campaign? Rabid supporters who don’t expect you to attend the event because it won’t help you win? Activists who expect you to be there to show your support for the organization that is supporting you? Get as specific as possible, from ticket sales to attendee lists to table arrangements. Will there be a podium? PA System? Is the program an hour? Four hours? Know before you commit your campaigns time.  Briefing memos should be prepared for every event on the campaign schedule – time, date, location, who will be in attendance, specific focus points, important facts, type of remarks, notes from past events in the same community, etc.

All surrogates should be prepared before speaking on behalf of the campaign, regardless of how elite or qualified they may be, they are not experienced with this particular campaign and they have significant potential to cause damage to the campaign very quickly. Most surrogates will appreciate and respect such preparation if it is done correctly. Even family members and the candidate’s oldest friends should be properly prepared before being sanctioned to speak on the campaign’s behalf. I rarely support fully scripting a surrogate’s speech, but the campaign should talk with them about why they support the candidate and what points to emphasize versus what things not to bring up or to down play. Just like the campaign’s media operations, surrogates need to be on message to be effective. It is amazing how many campaigns fail to prepare particularly high level surrogates, leaving a Congressman or Senator to flounder in front of a crowd, unsure of what to say beyond “Vote for this guy, he doesn’t suck!”

A recent campaign in a US Senate primary was among the worst examples of what I refer to as “Speed Date Campaigning.” Rather than building quality relationships and providing the motivation of personal contact with the candidate, the campaign crammed as many events in to each day, utilized a private plane to span a large state every day in an effort to hit every media market every other day. While dramatically outspending his opponent, and having at one point polled significantly ahead, on election day it ended up a double digit loss. When you take the time to build relationships and favor quality meetings/events over quantity of meetings, you build a stronger base that is much more resistant to character attacks and mudslinging. You develop a more motivated and energetic volunteer corps, voters more likely to actually cast a ballot and take the next step of encouraging friends/family to do the same.

This is particularly important in primaries, one of the things Democrats do generally worse than Republicans. Often our Democratic candidates take a “screw ’em if their not with me” attitude in the primary, particularly when it comes to party ‘elders’ and top tier activists. I encourage candidates in contested primaries to reach out to those ‘high level’ supporters of their primary opponent in a non-confrontational manner, sit down with them and say, “I’m here because I believe I’m the right person for this job, I hope if I win this primary you will support me, and I respect your decision to support the other guy…” It’s amazing how dramatically this can impact the post-primary period of the campaign, taking just a small percentage of time pre-primary to net huge gains to start the general election.

I’ve heard of campaigns trying to schedule separate meetings with 5-7 activists/donors in a single hour, every time I’ve seen it attempted, it has backfired on the campaign, with activists/donors unimpressed or insulted. If the people are worth meeting with, they are worth treating with respect and giving them enough time to accomplish something meaningful. Campaigning is a process with outcomes delivered over time, rarely instantly. Relationship building needs to begin as far in advance of the election as possible, with the results trickling in over time and culminating with a victory on Election Day.  The quality of the relationships you build will have a significant effect on how well your campaign resists character attacks.

Whether you are running for school board or U.S. Senate, take the time to show the people who come out to meet you that you appreciate them, value their vote and will listen to their concerns. On the other hand, your staff needs to keep you from wasting time on people you will never convince to support you as well as on people who have already reached their maximum support potential. Properly trained staff should help the candidate navigate the room, ideally having been in the room and met the attendees prior to the candidate’s arrival. See the prior Conventional Un-Wisdom on attire to ensure successful interaction with the attendees.

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