GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS


The 2014 Elections

The gap between the electorate in a presidential year election and a non-presidential year continues to widen.  This year, in both Rhode Island and the country,

the electorate was significantly older, whiter and more affluent than the voting population as a whole.  This is a reality that benefits Republicans.  In addition to the fact that this was the lowest turnout in 72 years, here are two more numbers that jumped out at me: Only 13% (or one out of eight) 18-29 year-olds voted this year.  Meanwhile, 68% of voters were 45 or older.  Contrast that with 2012, when 53% of voters were 45 or older.

This new reality creates wide two-year swings in what the electorate says it “wants,” since the electorate in Presidential years is so much different than in the “off-years.” 

At first glance, the fact that Democrats swept all the statewide and federal races in Rhode Island would seem to indicate that the state was immune to the national trend.  But in suburban and rural General Assembly “swing districts,” Republicans enjoyed some success, defeating an incumbent state senator and knocking off six House incumbents, a rarity.  Outside the urban core, Rhode Island bore a much closer resemblance to the country as a whole.  The trick for R.I. Republicans now will be to prepare when the pendulum swings back to a much less friendly “Presidential” electorate, which is coming their way in two years.

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They know who you are – and they are going to ring your doorbell, call your phone and even stalk you on the Internet (particularly Facebook) until you give them a reason to stop.  This was the year that the marriage between the “Big Data” tools of the two Obama presidential campaigns and plain old-fashioned door knocking by volunteers was consummated at the local level.  

Voters would be amazed (and maybe a little concerned) to learn what campaigns, even at a town council and school committee level, know about them, and how that information can now be sliced and diced in an effort to persuade them as individuals.  Why did that ad for so-and-so seem to appear for weeks on every web page you went to?  Because when you visited the campaign website, they dropped a cookie in your browser that “followed” you around the Internet, and showed you the ad everywhere you went.  The ad was probably targeted at you based on the pile of other information they had about you. 

In local campaigns it used to be enough to ring doorbells and send a few well-done pieces of direct mail.  By 2016 that will no longer be true – the candidate without a robust, smart, data-based on-line effort will be at a distinct disadvantage.  The good news for candidates is that it’s much more affordable than newspaper advertising, the now fading staple of local campaigns from the past.  The hard part - especially for local campaigns - will be to find someone who can manage the on-line effort, knows what they’re doing, and can do it consistently.  And even in this new age of technology, it still won’t work without those committed volunteers!

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Those annoying robo-calls you got on your phone throughout the course of the campaign were not what you probably thought they were.  While they may sound like a cheap poll, they’re really not, since a poll conducted in that way has little value to a campaign as a measure of voter sentiment.  In reality, the calls are a cheap (pennies per call) way to get even more information out of you.  In this case, the sponsor of the call is trying to find out if you’re willing to identify yourself as a supporter, an opponent or still undecided.  If you want to the calls to stop, say you are “opposed” – the campaign will stop calling, since they don’t do anything that will encourage you to go to the polls.  The worst thing you can do?  Say you are undecided, or hang up.  They’ll just keep calling.

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Speaking of polling - continuing a trend I first noted in 2010, for all practical purposes, it is now prohibitively expensive to get accurate polling data.  Campaigns do what they can because they have to, but any other poll, even from credible news sources, must be taken not with a grain, but with a mountain of salt.  It’s simply too hard and too expensive to get enough people to spend the 10-20 minutes per voter it takes to get a reasonably accurate gauge of voter sentiment.  Soon, only the best funded campaigns (or their related “Independent Expenditure” allies) will be able to afford truly accurate data.  The pollster who can figure out how to get accurate data in a world increasingly populated by cell-phone owners with limited attention spans will be much in demand.

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Thanks in large measure to the Citizens United decision, arguably the worst Supreme Court decision of my lifetime, campaign finance is now officially a sewer.  You can’t blame candidates and interests for doing what they must under the new rules to win, but the public is poorly served by a system that practically requires a candidate to have at least one (largely unregulated, often secretive) SuperPAC in their corner to make “Independent” Expenditures.  Meanwhile, however, expect this behavior to continue until voters impose some kind of penalty on candidates.  Although maybe there’s a connection between the low turnout and obscene amounts of money flying around.

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That said, a ton of money does not necessarily buy success.  Further, you don’t need to have the “most” money, you just need to have “enough.”

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A few years ago, I noted that competent, professional campaign staff had become essential for candidates (#5), a trend that has accelerated.  Two interesting things have happened since: 

First, relative to the resources available for down ballot statewide candidates (Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Treasurer) in Rhode Island, these campaign professionals have become more expensive, and in many cases, prohibitively so.  There are few bargains to be had.  Meanwhile, and more important, as party primaries have increasingly become an exercise in appealing to a party’s base, partisan campaign professionals (there are no other kind) who win primaries have become less adept at pivoting towards general election voters who are persuaded by a more centrist message, and more likely to be turned off by partisan code words and talking points.  Candidates, beware.

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Only eight more years before Rhode Island is likely down to one statewide U.S. House seat.

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The 2016 Presidential campaign will start before the snow melts.