Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

The Democrats’ ground game, their warchest, their deep and experienced staff? Meh. The electoral fundamentals held true. A liberal-leaning electorate leaned liberal — except for Phil Scott. The VTGOP continued its exile in the wilderness — except for Phil Scott.

All the twists and turns of the campaign we dutifully followed? Noise. The fundraising reports and TV ads we dissected? Fluff.

I’m beginning to wonder if traditional politics isn’t ideationally bankrupt. Political tactics seem to have precious little effect. Perhaps voters have simply tuned out the TV ads and mailers* and phone calls and social media efforts, not to mention poll-tested messaging and imaging. Most of the big money is spent on stuff that just doesn’t move the needle.

*I presort my mail in the garage. Candidate mailers go straight into recycle with the credit card offers and unsolicited catalogues.

Perhaps we need to fundamentally rethink the nature of political campaigning. And no, I don’t mean taking the same old crap and sticking it on Facebook or Twitter or InstaChat or ZiggyBot or whatever platforms I haven’t even heard of that are wildly popular among Millennials for the next 15 minutes.

The one thing that does work: a candidate who comes across as authentic, for better AND for worse.

That might be a nice guy from a construction firm or a gruff progressive number-cruncher* or a sharp-tongued Ivy League professor** or a cranky socialist from Brooklyn or a narcissistic rich guy from Manhattan who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.

*Doug Hoffer, thanks for asking

**Elizabeth Warren

What it’s not is a candidate who’s been focus-grouped and manicured, his or her positions carefully arranged for maximum appeal. Those people just look phony, even if there’s a real authentic person behind that consultant-crafted facade.

We are all so immersed in media that we are thoroughly familiar with the tricks of the trade. We’re accustomed to tuning out TV advertising, whether it’s pitching Viagra or Your Next Governor. We’ve been called so many times by pollsters and bots and fundraisers and earnest volunteers that more and more of us are opting out.

To judge by the results of 2016, the old political bag of tricks doesn’t work any more. And all the obsessive, perpetual fundraising? Most, if not all, of that money was squandered on tactics and media that didn’t move the needle.

Authenticity is a rare commodity in politics. It is also the most precious of commodities in this age of knowledgeable, experienced media consumers.

It’s difficult to simply dismiss the value of the consultant’s trade. But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that politicians would be wise to do just that. And, rather than honing their personas and policies to fit the polls or the current hot prototype, they should maybe figure out exactly who the hell they really are and what, exactly, they want to accomplish, and then bravely set forth on their chosen path.

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11 thoughts on “Do campaigns matter anymore?

  1. Hamilcar

    You nailed it. I watched all the candidates speak a year ago at a manufacturers’ association meeting, and it was obvious then that Phil would win. It seemed to me at the time that the Dems were just bad at public speaking, but Phil doesn’t know any more about oratory than he does economics.

    Hopefully Zuckerman’s reading your analysis.

    Reply
  2. Seth Hopkins

    “Mega dittoes,” VPO. I am a town chair, a county officer, and a state committee member for my political party, and once ran for state representative myself. We at the grassroots work a lot to raise money, host meet-and-greets, participate in parades, knock on doors, make the dreaded phone-bank calls, stand at polling places with candidate signs, manage Facebook campaigns, write letters to the editor . . . all that jazz.

    And I fundamentally agree with you that not much of it matters, at least here in Vermont. What matters is not even the issues so much (there are a number of two-seat districts with a Democrat representing one seat and a Republican the other). What matters above all else is Quality Candidates Who Connect with Voters. They will win almost every time, regardless of being outspent, outworked, or out-hustled.

    For my part, I will continue to do these things for candidates I support simply to show my support for them and to encourage them. They’re doing something at once harrowing and noble by running for public office. But as time goes by, I’m getting choosy. I’m a Republican, and I put a lot of stock in the (late William F) Buckley Rule, paraphrased as: support the most conservative candidate *who is electable*. Electability = Quality Candidate Who Connects with Voters.

    Reply
  3. Carl

    I’m not totally sure this applies on the local level – but on the national level, here’s another thought you might consider: under Hillary Clinton and her version of the DNC – the Democratic Party ceased to be the party of the working class and they turned it into the party of Wall Street and the elite. Donald Trump found a way to exploit this – BIGLY. Enough to win the electoral college vote where he needed to – in the rust belt. When you forget your roots – your tree is no longer strong enough to grow. I know I sound like Chauncey Gardner there – but perhaps he really was that wise.

    Does any of this apply on the local level? Maybe not in the same way – but, under Shumlin at least – the Democratic Party came to represent developers, utilities, lobbyists and his own agenda over the working class and I believe this helped Scott too – or maybe it didn’t help Scott as much as it hindered Minter (no matter how many party big wigs she had endorsing her).

    The Democratic Party now has two years to get its stuff together and find a way to return to its roots. They better get busy.

    Reply
  4. Jason Loomis

    I agree with you about the traditional methods not really working anymore. The phone calls and postcards are especially outdated. Big waste of money and time for a lot of people. It’s Vermont anyway. Throw a stump on a street corner in every town and deliver a speech or two.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Most Vermont politicos build their careers the old-fashioned way: by serving their local communities, getting to know a lot of people, earning their trust, and then running for office. All that personal interaction is a big reason why voters returned a Democratic majority to the House and Senate. Most lawmakers are well known and trusted in their home districts.

      Reply
  5. Rita Pitkin

    I won’t vote for a candidate unless they tell me where they stand and what their plan is. Not sure how this happens without a campaign, but our campaigns are too long and cost too much. The media, of course, loves the money and seems to be quite happy reporting on every twist and turn (without much honest analysis) to try and keep the audience engaged. Truly disgusting. Citizens United was/is a disaster but, unfortunately, will likely stand for quite a while now. “Nothing will change until we get the money out of politics”- Molly Ivins

    Reply
  6. David Van Deusen

    No ground game in the world could have tricked voters into thinking Clinton was anything other Clinton; a free trade Wall Street candidate of the elite. It is a travisty that Trump will be President, but is the outcome garenteed by the DNC doing every underhanded thing they could to undermine Bernie, and put Clinton forward as their candidate.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      There’s a lot of faith in Vermont that Bernie would have won this thing. I don’t buy it. He never had to suffer the slime onslaught of Trump and the Republicans. He also never proved he could appeal to voters beyond the Democratic Left.

      Of course, we’ll never know.

      Reply
      1. Matt

        So John, you supported the focus-grouped, bet-hedging, position-changing creature of the DNC from the beginning. How do you reconcile your approach early in the election to the conclusions you’ve reached in this piece?

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        Aw hell, when did I ever support the DNC? I thought Hillary was the better candidate, and as a matter of fact, I still do. Bernie looks good in retrospect, but he never had to go through the Trump/GOP meat grinder.

      3. Maureen Labenski

        There is evidence to support your hypothesis in the outcome of Zephyr Teachout’s race for the U. S. House of Representatives from NY’s 19th Congressional district. Yes, she is in a swing district – but, one that Obama won by 12% in 2012. Zephyr, Bernie’s protégé and a great candidate and campaigner, lost by 10% – that’s not even close. Look at the ads run against her; Bernie would most likely have received the same treatment with the same result.

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