Just recently I plunged into a local political campaign, volunteering my time and efforts to elect our County Executive. The Republican candidate had, in the previous election unseated the Democrat – who was then the incumbent but was now running again – by just 386 votes out of 235,000 cast. The Democrat had, by his own admission, conducted a low energy campaign, influenced, he concedes, by polling numbers which showed him comfortably ahead.
He would, he vowed, not repeat this error. Notwithstanding the advantage of incumbency and the Republican’s formidable campaign apparatus, I had high hopes. Their candidate was bland and uninspiring; his record at best mediocre, especially in view of the pressing needs of the County – decaying downtowns, young people leaving the area, escalating property taxes and debt, diminished growth rates, etc. No surprise since he represented a venerable political machine which, to retain power, had long relied on a time-tested formula – reward loyalists, dispense jobs, grant contracts to generous contributors and, with minor adjustments, do just enough to keep the government functioning.
Still, I was heartened by “inside” information which, among other things, revealed how the current regime had manipulated the books, installed in high offices friends, family and political supporters – many embarrassingly unqualified, scuttled numerous valuable programs and proved indifferent to the needs of the most vulnerable residents.
I was also encouraged by our candidate who, after his previous defeat four years ago, now threw himself into the race and campaigned vigorously. Smart, articulate, creative, handsome, he understood that the future well-being of the County depended upon a set of new policy initiatives, which he was advancing. Moreover, borrowing from the recent highly successful Obama playbook, he opened local offices, staffed by 2012 campaign veterans. Their mission – to contact all Democratic and Independent voters in the area, produce a comprehensive list of likely supporters and stay in touch at regular intervals as the campaign headed toward Election Day.
To me it seemed to be a recipe for victory, especially after a variety of organizations, including unions and veterans, as well as environmental and women’s groups, endorsed him (and in the home stretch, the New York Times and the major local daily as well). Equally encouraging was the tarnished Republic brand, the result of the Tea Party excesses, the grim fact that many residents remained homeless after Hurricane Sandy, as well as homeowner school tax bills, many of which contained large increases. My man appeared to have the wind at his back.
Still, there were disquieting developments. The candidate had been forced into a primary battle where a well-financed opponent attacked most aggressively. He survived the challenge – but at a cost. It was an unfortunate diversion and a disturbing outcome – some 40% of the vote went to the newcomer. While the campaign quickly moved on, there was a message – one we preferred to disregard. Then, too, the Republican candidate began his campaign unusually early, virtually blanketing the County with street signs thanking himself for not having raised taxes. Property taxes are a hot button subject in these parts; whatever the reality, Republicans consistently exploit the issue to their advantage. In addition, his non-stop television campaign swung into full gear, each spot proclaiming his success in reducing the debt and holding the line on taxes four years running (and hammering away at his opponent who, he charged as County Executive, raised taxes, increased the debt and accepted a large salary increase). The tag line said it all: “You couldn’t trust him then… You can’t trust him now.” Still, my man’s TV ads were credible and convincing, his debate performances compelling.
I remained soberly optimistic. Our campaign was well organized, our candidate running hard and smart, contributions flowing in reliably. Because this was an “off year” election we anticipated a low turnout, but then our “get out the vote” strategy seemed well designed to flush out our supporters on Election Day.
Then came the bombshell! The first published poll showed the Republican ahead by seventeen percentage points! Stunning. Incomprehensible – impossible to accept. The poll, we decided, must be faulty, badly designed, poorly executed. It was, we recalled, prepared by the same organization that had our candidate well ahead last time he ran. And yet he lost.
Our morale sagged, but quickly rebounded, buoyed by the appearance of former President Bill Clinton at one of our fundraisers and later by the endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo. At the local campaign offices volunteer callers reported receiving consistently favorable responses from likely voters, while others, canvassing neighborhoods, were well received. Despite this, a final poll showed our candidate trailing, although the gap had narrowed.
On Election Day I accompanied him to Penn Station in New York City where he greeted commuters rushing for trains heading back to the suburbs. It was an exhilarating sight watching him standing there amidst a sea of humanity still displaying boundless energy as hundreds and ultimately thousands streamed by. Many took pictures with him, quite a few stopped to discuss policy issues. They hugged, high fived, so many pledging their support or assuring him he’d already gotten their votes earlier in the day. Such an uplifting scene had us believing our man indeed had broken through – the “people” were behind him.
The polls closed at 9PM. About twenty minutes later it was effectively over. Trailing from the outset, my man was about to lose, and lose decisively.
Together with many others I had badly misread the situation. We had been insulated in a “bubble” we’d created, had spoken only to like-minded supporters, worn partisan blinders, failed to appreciate the opposition’s strengths and how voters were receiving their message. Only in retrospect were certain things clear. The general public displayed little interest in the contest (voter turnout once more was low). Efforts to strike the right chord, motivate our people and get them to the polls failed, whereas the Republican machine managed to reel in respectable numbers. In addition, their ad campaign, however distorted and simplistic, left its mark. Just talk “taxes, taxes”, talk “trust”, never mind vision or innovation. Just ask people, as they did repeatedly, to “keep it going”. Stay simple, keep the message at “gut” level – otherwise you lose ‘em, especially when there’s little overall interest (except for party operatives, officeholders, contractors and those ethnic groups identified with the candidates).
Overall, it was discouraging, sobering, even painful. I had lost perspective, assumed I could understand the “people”, whereas my reference point was largely myself and more rational than real. Election campaigns can defy easy analysis, the behavior of the electorate often mystifying, especially” low information” voters. Our candidate was, to my mind, the most promising, talented and committed political figure I’d ever encountered, brimming with energy and ideas. Yet the electorate didn’t see it that way. He lost to a mediocrity and to an inbred political organization from which one expects little more than business as usual, minor window dressing, and “taking care” of their own.
County residents, in the years ahead, will pay dearly for this loss of talent and absence of vision, for this wasted opportunity. Once again our democratic system has fallen short. Too easily manipulated, too pre-occupied to care much, it has failed to live up to its potential and, sadly, to our hopes.