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On Watch: In the throes of campaign season

by Peter Schrappen

Howdy, folks! We are in the throes of campaign season. That’s right. This is one time of year when you can count on hearing from your elected officials and those who want that job. A question for you: Have you ever wondered why some candidates sizzle and others fizzle? I have some working theories on that, so consider this a special election day edition of “On Watch.”

Candidates who win target their message to voters who will want to hear that message. That’s probably a no-brainer to you – faithful reader of this column, you. The trip-up occurs when candidates try to be all things to all people. Another mistake that wannabe-elected officials make is the thinking that voters pull out their issue list and compare it to the candidates’ positions. That’s giving voters way too much credit.

And it is not realistic. Voters are shoppers who make irrational decisions. Have you recently purchased bottled water? Just as Americans now drink more bottled water than milk or beer, we vote not on logic but on marketing. The vast majority of voters (the independents, swing voters) base their decisions on the candidate they like and trust. On a national level, the winner of the “Who would you want to grab a beer with?” question normally wins the election.

Let me back up at this point. You might be reaching for those blood pressure pills. I can hear you say, “But that’s not the way it is supposed to be.” This column has never been about what ought to be. Rather, my goal is to give you the straight-talk, no-nonsense guide to civic survival. When it comes to elections, here’s my firsthand experience to creating a winning framework. One of my favorite questions to ask candidates is this one: “How many votes do you need to win and how are you going to get them?” The flippant answer is, “One more vote than my opponent and I’m going to outwork him/her.”

What I’m looking for is, “Fifty-two percent. Who wants to endure a recount? As for winning, I’m going to target likely voters with doorbelling and phone-banking and mail pieces. My message is honed (input message of seven to nine words, please), tested and retested, and I use it with every question asked of me.

“You see, for me, I have broken voters into three blocs. There are the “mine” who are my base, diehard, campaign contributors, volunteers, friends and family. I already have them locked up. I’m now shifted my campaign to win the support of swing voters. Since you read Peter’s ‘On Watch’ column, that tells me that you take this stuff pretty seriously and you are not a swing voter. The swing voters, which comprise most Americans, spend less than five minutes a week thinking about politics. They don’t watch the news or ‘Meet the Press.’ They don’t vote in every election. I’ve got my ‘walking list’ and am doorbelling the heck out of this district to meet my likely voters to ensure that my message gets out and I can answer any questions that might arise.”

That would be an A+ answer. You find a candidate like that and you have found a winner.

Normally what happens is that you get candidates who try to acquire 100 percent of the vote. “I attend every forum I can. I love walking in parades.” To that I say, yikes! What a waste of time both of those activities are. If you are attending a forum, you know how you are voting before you show up. Community parades? Don’t bother. That’s not targeted. You should be walking the district with face-to-face contact (not more than three minutes per house).

The sophisticated candidates do not even bother with the “their voters,” who are the base of your opponent. The good news is that they don’t need to get those votes to win. Plus, by writing off that segment, you become that much more compelling to your base and the persuadables.

That’s the nuts and bolts of winning in my book (still awaiting a publisher to come knocking). What that has to do with you is that because you take this stuff seriously (after all, you are reading a government affairs column), you should be seen as what you are: an “Influential.”

This was a term coined by the Roper Survey company and was dissected in their 2002 book The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy.” Again, I’d put you in the Influential category. I suspect that not only do you know that we elect port commissioners, but chances are also know their names and personally know them. In turn, they (the electeds) need to know you. When they know you, you are now an Influential.

Here’s where you fit in: “How are you exerting your influential prowess?” is the question I’d ask you. (Smart) campaigners do not count all voters the same. As voters, some people simply count more than others (i.e., Influentials). Elected officials make this realization (after all, they have influential members of their caucuses, too) and as time goes along, your voice, your Facebook comment, your letter to the editor gets read by your state senator (and just as importantly, his or her staff). Maybe not the first time, but over time, you build your influence. A magical thing then occurs — as those elected officials get approached about a specific measure, they think of you and then wonder in a “What would Jesus do?” kind of way, “What would ___ think of this bill?”

I have seen this play out all the time. Here’s my most recent example: In the state capitol, not all the votes count the same, either. Legislators own different areas. It is impossible to know everything about everything in Olympia. Elected officials rely on staff, colleagues, leadership, lobbyists, constituents and associations to help them stay on top of the comings and goings of a legislative session. The more you exert your voice, the more influential you become to that legislative office.

Along those same lines, I met with a Puget Sound legislator to discuss the Marine Tourism Bill. That’s the one about expanding the cruising season for out-of-state boats before a 10 percent tax is levied on them. No-brainer. As I was going over the economic impact numbers ($29 million of new money for the state!) and the marine industry that this measure would bolster, this state senator asked me, “What would Ivan think of this bill?”

Not knowing of anyone in Olympia named Ivan, I had to fess up. “Who’s Ivan?” The response was something that still causes me heartache and disappointment in our system of government. “Oh, Ivan’s this noisy blogger who writes about issues in Olympia.”

That all brings me to my homework for you: Become our Ivan the Influential!

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