Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Important Are Candidate Forums?

A few days ago, I reviewed the candidacy of Alan North for Richardson City Council. North received fewer than 400 votes out of almost 8,000 cast. That came as no surprise, because North:

"attended none of the forums, responded to none of the questionnaires, reported no political fund-raising or expenditures, placed no campaign signs, pounded no pavement, kissed no babies, etc., etc."

After the jump, conjecture on what hurt North most (hint: it wasn't the babies) and advice for the candidates of 2013.

The first sign that Alan North's candidacy was going nowhere was his absence from the candidate forums. But is that what sank North's campaign? How important are the forums compared to other means of campaigning?

There were nine candidate forums (more, if you count the meet-and-greets). Attendance ranged from about 50 to about 250. Ignore people who attended multiple forums, family, friends, etc., and the number of unique persuadable voters who attended any forum might have been less than a few hundred people. In other words, not enough to attract the 4,000 or so votes needed to assure election victory. But, skipping the forums is asking for trouble. Alan North's campaign wasn't taken seriously because of his absences from the forums, which were noted in all the voter guides. Forums might not be enough to ensure a victory, but skipping them almost certainly ensures defeat.

The same goes for those questionnaires by newspapers, civic organizations, PACs, etc. Maybe only hundreds of people read them, not thousands, but those hundreds will think less of candidates who fail to respond. In a close election, candidates need to attract every vote they can.

What about those voter guides? In 2009, the Richardson Coalition PAC produced a slick voter guide and mailed it to many Richardson voters' homes. All the endorsed candidates won. The conventional wisdom decided that this was the key to victory. In 2011, the Richardson Coalition PAC repeated their tactic. The new, rival Richardson Citizens Alliance PAC attempted to counter with their own voter guide, which was also mailed to voters' homes (or hand distributed by volunteers). It's not known how many homes were targeted this way (e.g., my house received the RC guide, but not the RCA guide), but it was probably in the many thousands, enough to get their messages to a majority of the vote. Because competing PACs each adopted the tactic of distributing voter guides, this tactic is no longer sufficient to assure victory, but it's probably essential from now on.

How about direct mail ads? Eight pieces of direct mail advertising came to my house. Six were for individual candidates who ended up winning their elections. One was for a losing candidate. One was the previously mentioned RC voter guide, which endorsed all seven winning candidates. Four losing candidates mailed me nothing. The one losing candidate who did send me a direct mail ad also received more votes than any other losing candidate. Is all this just coincidence? Almost certainly not. Getting your face, your name, your message in front of the voters is an essential part of a winning election. Direct mail is the surest way to reach the largest number of voters.

Do yard signs matter? They undoubtedly aid name recognition. There are probably some voters who make their voting booth decision based on little more information than name recognition. So, yes, keep putting up those yard signs. Candidate forums target the high information voter, whereas yard signs target the low information voter.

Did social media play a role? Most candidates set up Twitter or Facebook accounts if they didn't already have one. Both sites are hard to gather large numbers of followers in a short amount of time, so their reach is limited. From what I saw, neither Twitter nor Facebook played any significant role at all in the Richardson election. Similar for email mailing lists. The RC Coalition probably has the biggest mailing list and worked it sparingly, but probably effectively. Few candidates showed that they had developed mailing lists.

What about video? The RCA PAC probably dropped a significant amount of money on some professionally-produced videos, uploading them to YouTube and airing one on local cable television. The most-viewed has had 1,175 views on YouTube as of May 18. The next most-viewed has 403 views. It's unknown how often the television ad ran or how many viewers it had. The RC PAC produced no videos. Because the RC candidates (no PAC videos) won and the RCA candidates (with PAC videos) lost, it's easy to dismiss the effectiveness of videos, especially if the costs of production and broadcast on cable television meant less money available for direct mailings. But a well-done home video uploaded to YouTube has virtually no cost, so I expect that future elections will see more of this tactic, not less.

Here's an unconventional approach you can consider. This could be especially effective for those Howard Beales out there. Next time, stage a rally, give a sensational, over-the-top performance, be sure to video it, upload it to YouTube and hope it goes viral. Good luck with that. We've already seen what happens if the rest of the city isn't mad as hell. You lose.

Speaking of rallies, that's one traditional campaign tactic that has fallen completely out of favor for local elections. The Dallas Morning News's Gromer Jeffers, Jr. discusses this in the context of the Dallas mayoral election:

"In municipal campaigns, gone are the days when residents could attend a rally and watch a candidate discuss ideas and press the flesh. Over the past three months, there is no record of Rawlings, Kunkle or Natinsky ever kissing a baby. Nobody passed out pastrami sandwiches over lunchtime. There were no soapboxes or trolley stop speeches. How many times did someone go home and tell his family that he heard this guy running for mayor speak at a rally and liked what he said?"

You might think that a campaign based on appealing to voter frustration, like the Richardson RCA's campaign, would naturally lend itself to rallies. Yet, no one attempted such a campaign in this election or in any election in my memory. It might be worth a try.

Overall, my guess is that the most effective campaign tactic is the direct mail voter guide produced by a generally respected PAC. Sending your own direct mail ads is second. Those questionnaires are also in this first tier of essential campaign tactics. It might be possible to win an election without yard signs, but why risk it? Yard signs work on low information voters. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are a distant also-ran, but free, so they should be exploited anyway. Cable television, hugely expensive for the return, is a waste of money, only advised for campaigns with dollars to, ... well, waste.

Oh, and those candidate forums? They are what you have to do to win the endorsement of those PACs that are going to send those all-important voter guides. So don't miss a single forum. Make a convincing case why you deserve to be on the city council. After all, you don't want a frowny face by your name in those voter guides.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

Someone pointed out to me that Amir Omar held three BBQs in the park that had the feel of old-fashioned political rallies even including a stump speech. So, I stand corrected on that point. And Omar won, so I won't argue with success.