Reaction to : High Tech Grass Roots by Strachan

In Politics on 21/07/2009 at 1:40 PM


Strachan defines a traditional “old-style” campaign as being a campaign that has its focus on basic communication styles that require more of a work force, less money and less expertise. Most of the voter contact in this type of campaign will be achieved through canvassing, lit dropping, speeches, yard signs and newspaper advertisements.  Conversely, in a “new-style” more professionalized campaign the focus will be on more sophisticated communication styles that require more money and a more specialized knowledge base.  Often new-style campaigns will combine the grass roots efforts of the old-style campaign with sophisticated tactics such as: public opinion polls, targeted direct mail pieces, as well as television and radio advertisements1.  Strachan stresses the notion that these styles… “…are not mutually exclusive; candidates can incorporate a mixture of both types in their efforts to communicate with voters throughout the duration of the political campaign. Yet any campaign relying heavily on sophisticated tactics-even if grass roots activities are not abandoned-is more accurately described as a new style campaign because efforts to supplement traditional tactics have been made.”   She found that old-style tactics still appear to be an integral part of local campaigns even when Political Consultants are tapped to help manage the more sophisticated tactics within a new-style campaign.  According to Strachan the movement in local campaigns is toward growing sophistication, and this trend will not stop until strict old-style campaigns are a thing of the past.  This is seen to be an absolute because her research shows that once any campaign within a locality begins to employ sophisticated techniques they continue to be used in the future.  She notes three fundamental influences in the adoption of sophisticated tactics at the local level. These influences include: sophistication levels of past campaigns, past contact with political consultants as well as stark competition.  Competition seems to be the most decisive influence because when the competition is stark each candidate is more likely to try anything they can to win the election. Strachan highly stresses the negative effects of new- style sophisticated campaigns while breezing over what may be considered positive effects.  Whenever she mentions the benefits of local candidates having access to sophisticated communication technology she seems to dash through it and make light of the situation by showing that it could also be a detriment to democracy.  In one instance after showing that  Carl Touhey, the Republican candidate for  mayor in Albany, NY, being able to fund his campaign was beneficial to helping overthrow a political machine in a small town she stated “Although Touhey’s campaign was beneficial, any political environment creating such a substantial burden on potential candidates cannot be described as a healthy democracy.” The main focus of Strachan’s fears in this new-style campaign are the higher monetary costs of these new style campaigns.  She goes on to say that such campaigns change the way that elections are won, the complexity of these campaigns make it so resources that were once sufficient, such as a strong volunteer base, are no longer cutting it, unless the candidate also has sufficient funds to supplement grass roots organization with sophisticated communication technology.  Because of the focus on fundraising she feels that fewer people are able to run a competitive campaign, that average citizens will no longer be able to give meaningful contributions to a campaign and that this will cause us to usher in an era of unaccountability in local government.  She also states that the increased costs of elections will eventually exclude an entire class of persons which will in effect widen the socioeconomic gap between the electorate and public officials.  The less educated and wealthy persons seem to be further disadvantaged in this model whereas the incumbents and wealthy citizens enjoy a stronger edge over their competition. I think that it is ridiculous to think that local level campaigns will/should forever go on running their campaigns as if televisions and personal computers are objects that only the elite have daily access to.  I feel that local campaigns should take full advantage of all means of communication available to them within reason.  Before taking on anexpensive ad on network TV (or any other expensive venture) a cost benefit analysis should be done to be sure that money is not being irresponsibly spent in areas that will not bring enough benefit.  If money is responsibly spent in the right areas a local new-style campaign can win an election  without spending a fortune.  You do not have to spend the most money, you just have to spend enough. I also do not feel that a strong volunteer base can be replaced by pollsters, political consultants, TV advertisements or direct mail pieces; but I do think that a strong volunteer base can be more effective when the campaign gets advise from consultants.  Local campaigns need not spend an exorbitant amount of money on these consultants, teaming up with people within the community who have worked on campaigns in the past and believe in what the candidate stands for can be a cost effective way to gain knowledge.  These community leaders will sometimes volunteer their time and knowledge for the campaign as is the case in the Kornell Campaign where we have access to four senior advisors at no cost to the campaign.  These advisors provide valuable insight which have helped the campaign in countless ways, such as event planning, reviewing our field and fundraising plans and explaining what has and has not worked in the past. Senior advisors are not the only assistance that a viable candidate can get for next to nothing with little more than a good message and a network of personal contacts.  The Kornell campaign has saved money by having Bill Bliss, a supporter, volunteer his time and expertise by creating our website for free and helping to maintain our Facebook page.  Some mayoral candidates, such as John Warren has spent $1,000 on a bare bones website, with no information beyond donation information8.  Our campaign will also be receiving a gracious deal from a local supporter who owns a printing business, who will be designing, printing and mailing three mailers for absentee voters for well under the production cost.  Examples like these can go on and on, and I wonder, is it really such a bad thing that those who do not have the support of the community will have to spend more money to get their message heard?  Steve Kornell is not among the wealthy upper class that Strachan mentions as being the benefactor of this type of campaign.  The median household income in Saint Petersburg is said to be $37,5519, and with Kornell making about $40,000 a year he is very much representative of the electorate. Another of Strachan’s major complaints about sophisticated campaigns at the local level is that ordinary citizens are unable to make important contributions to a campaign.  First-off I would like to point out that I think the notion that even a contribution of a dollar is not important is much more dangerous, than the incorporation of expensive tactics in local politics.  Every dollar earned will ultimately get the candidate one step closer to getting the mailer out, or getting an advertisement on TV.  Sure, bigger contributions are also important and twenty dollars may not get as far today as in the past, but ordinary citizens can make important contributions to a campaign that are priceless.  In the Kornell campaign we have a supporter who is 87 years old and is unable to donate much money, but what she does is volunteer as much time as she can, and talk to as many people as she can about Steve.  Recently, she held an envelope stuffing party at her house where she invited some of her friends as well as a few of us from the campaign and     this saved the campaign time and money, and was definitely an important contribution to the campaign.  There are others within our supporters who have donated both their time and money while throwing fundraising house parties, or volunteered their offices for us to use as a meeting place or phone bank office after hours.  Having local businesses on our side donating space when we need to make calls or all meet up together has saved the campaign thousands of dollars of overhead. While I do feel that problems can arise from such expensive campaigns taking the forefront in local elections, I do not think it is as big a problem as Strachan makes it out to be.  Candidates who do not have extensive personal funds that they can tap into but have the support of the local community will still be able to be competitive if they use their volunteers and money wisely.J. Cherie Strachan, High-Tech Grass Roots: The Professionalization of Local Elections (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).



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