Political training with Democracy for America

Democracy for America is the political action committee started by supporters of Howard Dean to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party”. I happened to hear of a training course they were doing on political campaigns in conjunction with 21st Century Democrats. Given my recent interest in politics, I was curious, so I signed up.

It was pretty interesting. I’m not an activist, and I’ve never worked on a campaign, which may have put me in a minority of one in the room of 150 or so people. But hearing from these people that have worked on numerous campaigns and were laying it all out for us was impressive. They get it. All of those complaints I had from the outside – they understand them. Kelly Young, the founder of 21st Century Democrats, started things off with a great presentation which pointed out that the point of a campaign is to win an election. That’s it. It’s not to spread the word about your views, it’s not to win people over, it’s to win an election. You may do those other things in the service of the campaign, but keep your eye on the goal.

She also ran some scary numbers if you believe in democracy as an idea (not that I do). Take a typical district of 75,000. That’s an overwhelming number of people you have to convince to win an election. But, of those, maybe 50% are registered voters. That’s 37,500. And, of those registered voters, maybe 40% actually show up to vote. That’s 15,000. And of those, you only have to get 50% plus one. That’s 7,501 voters you have to convince. That’s significantly more tractable and gets more so, when you break it down even further, which they covered later. So the importance of a field campaign (which is Kelly’s specialty) is paramount in convincing swing voters and getting out the vote.

When you step back and look at that, 10% of the people in a district will enforce their will on everybody else. And that frightens me a little bit. That doesn’t seem very democratic. It’s how you win an election right now, but I’d idealistically like to think there’s some way to change the system to make it more representative. We had some interesting comments over on LiveJournal about possible fractal government structures, where self-similar structures coalesce all the way up. I’d like to develop that further at some point (and think about how to design the social interface), but back to the training for now.

Kelly also made great points about the importance of organization. Make a campaign plan – “If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist”. Make a timeline so you know when things will happen. Keep track of your voter lists, so you know who to help go vote on election day. Develop your story – why should people vote for your candidate? Then she got into details of each of these things. I thought the parallels to project management are obvious: Gant charts (timelines), Product Concept Documents (the story), Product Specification Documents (the detailed campaign plan), etc. That probably only amused me, though.

The rest of the day had some great talks as well. Dan Chavez and Steve Ybarra from Latinos for America had some good advice about how to be effective in the field. “Drive the county” and “Visit Walmart” were notable quotes. When Steve asked the crowd how many of us had shopped at Walmart, it cracked me up when nobody raised their hand – Steve said “That’s average America – that’s who you have to talk to!”.

Bob Mulholland, a strategist for the California Democratic Party, chatted about campaign strategy and reality – I think my favorite piece of advice was to keep it simple. Don’t get into explaining stuff. His example was make your message “Stop Bush!” If you leave it at that, the person that sees it applies their own context and interprets in terms of their own personal woes. If you keep on going and say “Stop Bush because he’s against gay marriage”, then maybe that person goes “Well, I don’t know how I feel about gay marriage, so maybe I don’t agree with this campaigner.” Use the voters’ ability to supply context to your advantage. He also said it’s all about attack, attack, attack. When questioned by the audience why Kerry wasn’t following that strategy, he said he wasn’t on the campaign, but he’d guess that it wouldn’t play well with the appropriate voters of the swing states. I thought that was an interesting observation – we all assume that other people are like us, and they’ll be convinced by similar things. So because we rabid progressives want to see Kerry destroy Bush, we assume other people do as well. Maybe we’re wrong (despite my rants to the contrary).

Dan came back with some thoughts about targeting voters in an election campaign. Remember those 7501 voters you needed for that theoretical district of 75,000? How do you find the right 7501? You use the National Committee for an Effective Congress to get the numbers breakdown on your district to find out if it’s even possible, and to find out who has voted in which elections recently. Then you go out and ask people their positions. Doing that, you can start throwing people out right away. Anybody that doesn’t vote, punt. Anybody that consistently votes Republican, punt. People that regularly vote, and consistently vote Democratic, punt (this one brought protests from the audience, but he made the point that you’re wasting resources on people that are already on your side). So that leaves two main groups that you have to address. Undecided voters who always vote – these are your top priority, because not only will they not vote for you, they will vote for the opposition – you have to convince them. Then there’s the voters who consistently vote for the Democrat when they do vote, but don’t make it to all the elections – these are voters you have to make sure show up on Election Day. So you’ve winnowed the district down to a manageable number of key people. Again, that’s how the math works to win elections right now. Kind of unromantic, though 🙂

Ralph Miller followed with a great presentation on dealing with the media. The important points I wrote down were “People don’t read!” so make sure that your main point is in the headline, and that your entire story (who, what, where, when, why and how) is in the first paragraph of press releases. Second, press people are normal people (he apparently has been a press guy for years) that respond to kindness, so do your best to make their lives easy. Feed them stuff in a format they want, give them good visuals, make sure you know their deadlines so you can get stuff to them well in advance, thank them afterwards. They will appreciate it, and you’ll get more favorable responses from them in the future. It makes a lot of sense,but it doesn’t surprise me that people forget about the basics in the stress of a campaign. Ralph was also kind enough to stick around during the “breakout sessions” to talk with a few of us some more about the use of media in politics.

Oh, somewhere in there, Steve emphasize 27-9-3. If you want to get a message across, especially on TV, say it in 27 words and 9 seconds, making 3 points. He had a great example, which I unfortunately can’t remember at all. But he guarantees it will work. And it makes sense. However, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to compress my ideas down that well 🙂

The day finished with a talk by Jeani Murray, the director of Dean’s campaign in Iowa, about developing and controlling your campaign message. It’s all about telling a story. I think the most interesting aspect of the presentation was when she illustrated the use of a “Message Box”, where you lay out what you’re saying about yourself and your opponent, and what your opponent is saying about himself and you. She used the example of Kerry and Bush. And it was absolutely telling that even in this group of devoted progressives, it was hard for us to articulate what Kerry was saying about either himself or Bush. And yet, all of us knew exactly what Bush was saying about himself (“strong leader” “war on terror”) and Kerry (“flip flopper” “weak leader”). That’s a bad bad sign.

I’ve rambled on too long, as usual. Some really interesting stuff. I ended up skipping the second day of training out of exhaustion and lack of interest – it was covering the details of fieldwork (volunteer recruitment, voter contact, unions, organizing canvasses and phone banks, and getting out the vote), which interest me less than the big picture of the campaign. I have a huge book of notes that they gave out on each of the aspects of the campaign, which I’ll probably look at more later. Overall, I was very impressed by the people running the training. They were focused, efficient, experienced, and ruthless about trying to get the greatest return on their investment of time and money. I wasn’t sure such people existed in the Democratic organization (although the fact that most of these people were in Dean’s campaign says something to me). I was less impressed with some of the audience, who displayed many of the same self-righteous pleading tendencies that make me less inclined to be associated with liberals. But I think the training sessions are a great idea – we need more people out there who are willing to play hardball with the conservatives. The conservatives have developed a tremendous base of political experts in their think tanks. These training sessions and things like Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute are the start of fighting back.

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