HUDSON: LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM BENNET
Colorado’s accidental U.S. Senator ran his campaign this year with purpose
By Miller Hudson
Several years ago one of Denver’s more successful attorneys called me to inquire what I thought her chances would be if she ran for City Council. After assuring her that I was confident she would do a terrific job if she were elected, I asked her the following question, “If you announce your candidacy tomorrow morning, how many people will wake up the day after tomorrow wondering what they can do to help you win?” When she replied she wasn’t sure there was anyone other than her husband, I advised her not to run and informed her, as gently as possible, that I doubted she could win. She ignored my advice and eventually placed third.
Entry-level candidates need two things rarely discussed in political science courses. Most important is that cadre of ten or twelve individuals who will stay up until two in the morning applying postage stamps, or writing thank you notes. They are the volunteers who will leaflet a parking lot at 7 a.m. or drop literature during a Broncos game. It is their profoundly felt faith in a candidate that becomes contagious as a campaign grows. Their commitment and enthusiasm ripples through a community in a way that no number of paid staffers can ever achieve. The next most important asset is a slice of the constituency that a candidate can rely on as a base of support. This can be something as simple as ethnicity or a history of activism with a neighborhood association, youth program, local church, political party, school system or other community initiative.
When candidates choose to run for offices further up the political food chain, campaign experience is hugely important. In a large field, a veteran campaigner will generally win, at least in part, simply because he or she has learned how to gracefully disagree with opponents without appearing disagreeable. Michael Bennet entered the Colorado Senate race disadvantaged in all three of these arenas. While he enjoyed a small coterie of supporters who were impressed by his work as Superintendent of Denver’s dysfunctional public school system, he needed to rapidly expand this circle to hundreds of committed volunteers throughout a vast state where he was poorly known. Neither did he bring with him a natural base of support outside the education community where his firm support for classroom reforms drew as many critics as it did enthusiasts.
During the long months while Andrew Romanoff was dithering about launching a primary challenge Bennet had the opportunity to aggressively champion an issue or two that could help him forge political alliances with Colorado voters that would translate into later electoral support, both in a primary and general election. It wouldn’t have mattered much which issues were selected. They simply had to be perceived as deeply held, personal commitments to fixing things needing fixing in Washington. The failure to identify himself with a specific, personalized agenda for change allowed Republicans to label him as little more than a rubber stamp for national Democratic priorities.
The Bennet campaign also missed a chance to bring veteran Democratic precinct leaders under its tent. Romanoff certainly enjoyed broader grassroots support within the party, but there was a window of opportunity, early on, when even many of these supporters could have been recruited if more aggressively courted. Rather than providing its identified supporters a role in growing a wider base of support that would rely on their networks of personal contacts, the Bennet campaign opted for a strategy of numbers-based voter identification. The campaign fattened up on college interns who worked phonebanks day and night, firing off e-mails and Internet blasts in order to create a database that characterized voter preferences.
This statistics driven approach produced a narrow primary win but did little to energize the Democratic base for a general election. Instead of using August and September to energize Democratic strongholds and cajole Romanoff supporters onto the campaign, the Bennet organization mechanically moved on to constructing an even larger database of general election voters and their declared preferences. One field organizer told me flatly, that, “Romanoff supporters can get on board if they want. But, we proved we could win without them during the primary, and we will win again in November with or without them. It’s their choice now!”
While charmless, this approach had the benefit of a clear and easily understood election strategy. Each and every day, staff and volunteers knew exactly what they were supposed to do. The campaign discounted tracking polls showing a small Buck lead among likely voters because they always intended and expected to turn out an unseen margin of 3-5 percent among unlikely voters. The campaign knew whom they were, where they lived and how to reach them. And reach them, they did. Supplemented by an unrelenting negative ad campaign characterizing Buck as risky, extreme and uncertain, Bennet fought his way to a virtual tie at this writing against a tidal wave of Republican resentment.
This is a considerable achievement on the part of a rookie Senator who may well survive a cataclysm in which several of his more experienced colleagues were lost. If he does, it will be in part because of the early decision to distance himself from the policy train wreck that is the United States Senate. While it may not be entirely clear where his legislative priorities actually lie, it is abundantly clear that Colorado’s junior Senator understands his constituents, Democratic and Republican alike, expect him to take a large broom with him if he returns to Washington. No one any longer doubts that Michael Bennet is a very smart guy, one who will use the next six years to forge bonds with Colorado voters that will outlast a single term.
Imitation being the truest flattery, win or lose, we should expect to see candidates in both parties replicating the vote farming techniques that worked so well for an accidental candidate who wasn’t expected to run as well as he has. What this may spell for the future role of party organizations remains to be seen. Think, diminished role.
Miller Hudson is a veteran observer of politics. He is a former Democratic state representative from Denver, a lobbyist, and was a candidate for RTD this year. He narrowly lost on Tuesday night.