Political History Lesson

Books on Politics

I helped manage the political campaign of Democrat Dick Schwab for Iowa House District 73 during the 2012 general election. We worked hard but lost. I took the following three posts down with my entire blog Big Grove News in 2013.

They were written as a way of letting go of the fever caused by my complete engagement in the campaign. I re-publish them here as a political history lesson. They are unchanged except for some spelling errors I regret too much to let stand.

Buckshot and lessons learned, Nov. 8, 2012

One of the key lessons I learned during this election campaign was that the proper place for a barn sign on a gravel road is well off the highway on a knoll. That way, it can be seen for more than a mile and the shotgun buckshot may penetrate the plywood, but won’t obscure the message. Vandals are too lazy to climb the barbed wire fence to get off a close range shot. There were a few other things.

In 2012, the work of our campaign was mostly done by female volunteers. It is the grunt work of making phone calls, knocking on doors, preparing mailings and arranging events. Women were also more likely to sign the check for a political campaign donation. There were men involved, but fewer of them. At the door and on the phone, our voter targets were more often women as well. If politics is becoming a woman’s endeavor, then it is disheartening that there is not parity between male and female candidates.

Voter turnout was predictable in Cedar and Muscatine Counties, but more than expected in Johnson County. Before the election, I forecast voter turnout of 10,689 in Muscatine and Cedar Counties, and actual, based on unofficial results, was 10,682. This was as good as it gets in electoral politics. Johnson County was another matter. I forecast turnout of 4,519 and it came in at 5,339, or 118.2 percent. My gut feeling is that there were two factors: more people working with the Democrats and Republicans to get out the Johnson County vote, and a concerted effort by Republicans to suppress the margin in Johnson County through a vote by mail effort combined with increased, and more effective political activism. Once the breakdown of voter turnout by party is available, Johnson County voter turnout warrants additional consideration.

While Facebook and social media were abuzz this cycle, they had little impact on our campaign effort. If anything, websites, Facebook, Twitter and blogs were a distraction from the work of campaigns. We recognized this during the primary election campaign, and decided to do minimal work through these media. In retrospect, it was the right decision. It was particularly evident in fundraising where the power of personal networking far exceeded the value of posting a fundraising appeal online. Our voter support was also gained through personal contact, not through social media.

There are more lessons learned from this campaign, but only one more will fill out this post. It is the distinction between the hedgehog and the fox pointed out by Nate Silver in his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don’t.

In our political campaign there were plenty of people who wanted to tell us what to do. Typically they were people with a driving social style, with lots of information about past campaigns, who offered capsules of specific and pointed advice about different aspects of the campaign. Silver would call these folks hedgehogs. To be successful in current politics, a campaign should listen to hedgehogs, but take any advice with a grain of salt. If Democrats want to win our house district in the future, the approach of a campaign must be more fox-like. By that, I mean accepting the diversity and uncertainty of the electorate, and using multiple approaches to building the coalition to win. This is what Barack Obama’s campaign did to build a winning coalition. The partisan aspect of local politics should be abandoned going forward.

Election of a state senator or representative is a personal decision for most district voters. Successful candidates accept this and figure out a way to relate to a majority of voters, as the Republican in our race did. A fox-like approach has little to do with party affiliation and more to do with interpersonal contact.

The best example of this is the down-ticket drop off in our district, where the margin between voters who voted Democratic for Barack Obama and Dave Loebsack and those who either did not vote in the house race, or voted for the Republican, was 1,946 votes. If voters had followed party preference expressed in the top of the ticket in the house race, the margins in the election would have been reversed, and the Democratic candidate would have won.

While there will continue to be political parties, the lesson from this campaign, reflected in the national races, is that being Democratic or Republican is no longer the key factor in local politics, if it ever was.

Dunbar’s number and 10,000 doors, Nov. 9, 2012

The Republican in our house race repeated mournful lamentations about our campaign, how we were not doing the work required, and along with his supporters, attempted to smear our candidate’s character and work, both on the telephone with voters and at their doors. Such jeremiads were evident among district voters all summer and intensified during the fall. When our campaign went to voters with his record of citations and one recent probation, he initiated a series of public complaints of victimization, beginning with the League of Women Voters candidate forum in Muscatine, where he said in his closing statement,

“I’d like to spend my last minute talking about civility in politics. In the beginning of this campaign, Dick and I agreed to run a positive campaign and I was really grateful for that. Saturday morning was a sad morning because I woke up to a piece of slanderous trash that had been sent out to thousands of people in this district. Now, in full disclosure, this piece was sent out by the Iowa Democratic Party. But I spoke with Speaker Paulsen today and he said that he has never issued a piece of mail without going by the candidate to getting his approval first. So Dick, did you break your promise, or are the party bosses in Des Moines making your decisions for you? I’m here to say that I’m at the crossroads of the campaign and I’m choosing the high road. I will not criticize my opponent, I will not go negative. I’m going to continue to talk about positive issues, continue to knocking on your doors and continue to talk about issues important to residents of House District 73?”

The last three sentences of this speech proved to be blatantly false. He had been going negative throughout the summer, so his new attacks were neither truthful nor unexpected. As the campaign drew to a conclusion, the jeremiad of Republican victimization continued, as did negative attacks, with the predictable mail pieces sent by the Iowa Republican Party, using the negatives about our candidate they poll-tested shortly after Labor Day. I was there, and know the veracity of what I have written, although the Republican would likely cry foul.

The most repeated jeremiad was a version of a statement that appeared in the Nov. 2 West Branch Times,

“My brother and I have knocked on over 10,000 doors and I have been to over 200 community events. I have poured my heart and soul into this campaign. There has been a deliberate attempt to paint me in a negative light so I just want to remind you what I stand for.”

Set aside the fact that the number of asserted community events attended varied, with statements of 600 one time, 400 another, and 200 when it came time to put the number into print. He did attend a lot of events, and his unspoken criticism that we did not was ridiculous. He repeated the phrase 10,000 doors often, and the number did not vary once asserted, sometimes including his brother, and others not.

The Republican did appear to be working hard during the campaign, and his victory confirmed that he worked smart, capitalizing on his family name, when he had no substantial reputation of his own. But there is a problem with the basic premise of his campaign, and the assertion about 10,000 doors, that he would be a representative voice in Des Moines for district residents. It can be explained using Dunbar’s number.

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who posited the idea that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. The commonly used number of relationships is 150, although the science is not exact. The simple truth is that the community of people with whom a house representative must maintain stable social relationships is small, and well identified before one knocks on the first door.

First, a house representative’s community includes members of their family. With this Republican there is a long lineage and a large, extended family. There was no discussion of his personal relationships during the campaign, as we considered that to be out of bounds. If there is a significant other or any children, he did not say, but family relationships all take up part of Dunbar’s number.

Second, the party caucus will include the most important social relationships a representative has. It appears there will be 53 house Republicans during the 85th Iowa General Assembly. The essence of political power in the Iowa legislature is bonding with one’s caucus. When house Republicans were in the minority, they stuck together, and exerted power to prevent the majority party from getting bills passed. When they were in the majority, they passed almost whatever bill they would, with little consideration of the fact that ours is a bicameral legislature, and consent of the Iowa Senate was a prerequisite to passing legislation. The 2012 property tax reform is a good example of this. House Republicans asserted that the bill had bipartisan support, but the failure to pass property tax reform rested on the fact they did not have bipartisan support in the Iowa Senate.

Third, there are the people who helped the candidate get elected. There is a deep pool of financial donors, who will be needed in future campaigns. There are notable party members that include Chuck and Barbara Grassley, Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds. There is also a legion of volunteers who also must be heard and respected. So how much of Dunbar’s number is left for everyday people in the district? Far less than 10,000.

Now that the campaign is over, district residents are relegated to constituent services. The Republican said he would listen, and I believe he will try. I also believe he will try to respond to each constituent request, as his father dutifully did. But the exigencies of life in the legislature are that votes need to be taken in the present, and there is little time to solicit broad voter feedback on most of them. His social circle of a Republican caucus, family members and supporters will hold the biggest influence as the bills move and he makes his decisions. I don’t like it, but to the winner go the spoils, and this is the most fundamental aspect of partisan politics. Regardless of the assertions of bipartisanship, a state representative votes with his or her party, on most issues.

I hope my new state representative serves us well, and I will pray for him. I will also pray that I can remain open minded about his potential for efficacy with constituents who hold diverse and often opposing views. As they say, the proof will be in the pudding.

Throwing in with the boss, Nov. 10, 2012

2012 OFA door hanger

While Tip O’Neill wasn’t the first politician to say “all politics is local,” his words were relevant during the 2012 general election. The future of the top three candidates on the ticket, Barack Obama, Dave Loebsack and ours would depend on voters’ reaction to our campaigns as they played out in their communities.

I began running the numbers for our house race in late September, and over a two week period, ran more than 35 computer models, failing to find a winning scenario. This is when denial can set in, that all the hard work could not have been in vain. Shortly after the redistricting plan was approved, we heard the Republicans had developed a winning scenario, but in early October, we had come too far to do anything but press on.

We had done polling after Labor Day and were 22 points down in Cedar County, but solid in Johnson. At least we knew where we stood, and could design the rest of our campaign around the polling results. We concentrated our voter contact in Cedar and Muscatine Counties, virtually abandoning additional work in Johnson.

I rigged up a winning scenario as a goal for our efforts. We focused on West Branch, Gower/Springdale, Linn/Pioneer, Wilton and Tipton during the final five weeks of the campaign. The hope was that by having a candidate through the end of the race (something Democrats in Cedar and Muscatine Counties did not have in 2008), the percentage yield for our candidate would improve across that part of the district, and with work, we could win these targeted precincts (excepting Wilton) and Johnson County.

The election results showed we improved Democratic margin over the 2008 house race in Cedar County precincts by an average of 5.5 points, in City of Wilton by 15.0 points, and in Johnson County we lost margin by an average of 5.5 points. After the election, someone texted me that “the cake was baked before we had a candidate.” Knowing what we knew, I don’t see any other game plan we could have run, other than the one we did.

When a person talks to voters across the district, in rural and urban settings, one gets a sense of the electorate for which there is no substitute. We had this before the primary, when most targeted voters knew neither Democratic candidate, and to win, we focused on where we had the votes identified for our candidate. It proved to be a successful strategy.

In the general election, without the ids to win, we could only pin our hopes on getting the vote out for the ticket, which we did with enthusiasm. The hope of our GOTV effort was to ride President Obama and Dave Loebsack’s coattails. As mentioned in a previous post, the down ticket drop off was the difference between winning and losing, and our campaign failed to convince enough Obama/Loebsack voters that we had the better Iowa house candidate. If we had done a better job of this, we would have won.

Yesterday, I was at the Iowa City recycling center disposing of campaign materials and yard signs. The Republicans had beat me to the yard sign recycling bin, and the bottom was lined with Romney, Archer and Kaufmann signage. I dumped the ones I had collected on top, bringing a form of closure to the campaign.

Our county party chairman happened to be there, also recycling campaign materials. He offered his appreciation for our work and condolences for our loss. We talked about politics, specifically about the justice center, who will fill Sally Stutsman’s seat on the board of supervisors, and whether it will be by appointment or by election. There is always another campaign.

For me, the 2012 campaign was life changing in a way that is hard to explain. I am a better person for the experience, and have no regrets about what we did. As Dick Schwab was quoted in the West Branch Times last Wednesday, “I would have rather won, but life goes on.”

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