Sunday, April 12, 2009

Lessons learned and not learned

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 12, 2009

By Bill Kraus

It was, for the most part, a day for the favorites and for favorite strategies, most but not all of which worked.

The Obama Example, which consists of spending a lot and going retail by putting large numbers of people on the streets, was followed and validated by those candidates who had the money and the organizations. Not a big news item. My own prejudice would be to credit the retail over the money particularly in low-turnout elections, but this doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom or make the hired guns rich and will be dismissed out of hand.

Until and unless there’s a campaign where money goes head-to-head with organization, which is a researcher’s dream and a campaign improbability, this disagreement will not be resolved.

The Feingold Example, on the other hand, had no takers that I saw. What Russ did was to tell the third parties to go away, with a “thanks but no thanks” to those who offered to run parallel campaigns designed to help him. Tony Evers's campaign, if any, was completely overshadowed by Mary Bell’s ads for WEAC. The other campaigns got less significant help, which makes their failure to set the good example of suggesting that political campaigns are supposed to be the property of the candidates even more disappointing.

Civility had a pretty good day. Attack ads did not. Attack ads were used mostly against popular incumbents and flirted with being inane and irrelevant, and any failure of this technique, which diminishes the trade and its practitioners, is worth applauding. The trade itself, too, had a pretty good day. The naysayers and attackers who follow the course set by the shouters who draw listeners to talk radio found that the voters were voting for people who spoke more softly and offered to deliver a government that worked. Could it be that campaigns are going to be more about what candidates hope to do than where their opponent messed up?

The organizations that insist on anonymity contributed more legwork than media buys to the campaigns of those they favored or opposed. A young man who came to my door asked me to answer some questions for a survey he was conducting. When I saw the length of the list of questions, I demurred, and asked what organization he represented and whether he wanted to leave me any literature. He said his organization was Advancing Wisconsin, a worthy idea, and he left me literature for three candidates who presumably would do that. He wouldn’t have passed the Feingold test.

The robocall--an emerging candidate for most annoying campaign technique--had a big day. My phone rang off the hook particularly as election day neared--with calls from all the candidates for major offices and from candidates for lesser local offices as well. Or were those recordings? And why not spend this money on radio spots or newspaper ads or calls from friends or something less patently phony and, as I said, annoying.

In sum, the 2009 elections offered the optimists among us some hope without entirely dismissing the pessimists’ fears. The pessimists will point out that the Democratic Party didn’t get, didn’t believe, or chose to ignore the poor record of attack ads when they decided to take a preemptive shot at Scott Walker’s presumed 2010 candidacy for governor a few days after the election.

Even the optimists have to continue to be dismayed by the candidates’ unwillingness to and uninterest in controlling their own campaign destinies by telling the outsiders to step aside, take a walk, go away. The parallel campaigns were mostly benign this spring. That is not their natural preference. They prefer the big stick.

Until and unless candidates disdain parallel campaigns, campaign hijacking, which can beset candidates of every persuasion, lingers and looms.

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