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Go Local to Win in Rural (and other) Communities
Team sports and politics stir what is in us. For those in the contest, there is the motivation, the drive, the discipline, the focus on winning. For those in the stands, the emotion, the identification, the investment in who wins. For those on the sidelines, the chance to direct, plan, interpret, criticize, and tell us how to win.
So, what does it take to win?
In sports, the usual answer is money and talent. You spend the most to buy the best players and the championship trophy will be yours. Local pundits implore their teams to do “blockbuster” trades to bring in the best talent. Teams that rely on homegrown players are “standing pat”.
In politics, money is also the usual answer. If you have money, you are a “serious” candidate. If you don’t you are relegated to the paragraph that begins, “Also running are …”
Often, however, the usual answer doesn’t get the job done. The New York Yankees, always near the top when it comes to payroll, have not won a world series in 14 years. Michael Bloomberg spent more than $1 billion running for president in 2020. His national campaign operation with 2,400 staff ended with 55 of the 2,375 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination.
The New York Mets with the “most expensive roster in major league baseball history” and two of the best pitchers were in last place a month ago and more than 20 games behind the division leader proving in the words of one writer, “Money guarantees nothing.”
Reflecting on his long basketball career before being inducted this year into the NBA’s Hall of Fame, Dwyane Wade, who played college ball at Marquette, described a different path to winning.
“You don't just win because you have talent. You don't just win because that's what you want to do … It's not just being the best team. It's not just being the best player … it's about showing up every day … keep putting in the work … keep believing … keep learning … do it all over again … everything has to be aligned for you to win.”
There is also an alternative to the conventional wisdom in politics. An alternative to the money dominated, media centered, poll driven, consultant directed, campaigns that have become the accepted strategy for winning. That alternative rejects what inevitably becomes a campaign run by outsiders who have no lived knowledge of voters in the community.
It is an alternative focused on the local. Local organizing, local connections, local concerns. Act local, talk local, be local. Be yourself, be genuine. Tell the story that connects who you are, with who your voters are. That connects what they want, with what you want to accomplish.
Candidates who adopted the alternative and won when they weren’t expected to, have usually been from rural districts, but the principles apply generally. They created campaigns that fit their voters and themselves. They defeated Republican incumbents in Republican districts.
Chloe Maxmin, who in 2020 became the youngest state senator in Maine history, won in a rural district that had voted Republican by a 16-point margin in the three previous elections. Her opponent was the Senate Republican Leader who had represented the district since 2004.
In a recent book, Maxmin and her campaign manager Canyon Woodward tell their story. “We believed that Democrats could still win conservative rural districts if they took the time to drive down the long dirt roads where we grew up, have face-to-face conversations with moderate Republican and independent voters and speak a different language.”
When the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee told them that it “didn’t believe in talking to Republicans,” they created their own canvassing universe that included “thousands of Republicans and independents who had (literally) never been contacted by a Democratic campaign in their entire time voting.”
(The message to avoid talking with Republicans was the same message the Wisconsin Democratic Party sent this past election when it limited county parties’ access to voting lists because some were using the information to knock on Republican doors.)
In addition to engaging with voters across the political spectrum, Maxmin’s campaign rested on the belief that, “rural folks vote on what rings true and personal to them: Can this person be trusted? Is he authentic?”
“Authentic” is the Holy Grail of politics. Following a script given to them, candidates pursue the image. The effort is sometimes laughable, sometimes sad. The result, often the opposite of that intended.
We still remember Dukakis donning a helmet and driving a tank, Kerry riding a bicycle along the Charles River, and Bush trying to navigate the checkout counter at a grocery store. We see it this year with DeSantis carrying one of his young children at campaign events. If a prop is needed to appear authentic, you have already failed.
The evening before one election, I listened as the Democratic candidate for Illinois governor talked with a few friends about the campaign just ending. He had hired two out-of-state consultants. The script they had written called for him to play a conservative Democrat running to the right of a liberal Republican.
Looking back over the campaign on that last night, he said with obvious regret, “I never once talked about anything that I was really interested in.” It had showed. What the voters saw was not the real person. The next day when the votes were counted, he lost.
As more people without any previous political experience are recruited to run for office, the influence of outside political consultants increases. The candidate, chosen because of name recognition, celebrity status, or the ability to fund their own campaign, looks for direction. As one candidate described his campaign to me, “I don’t think about anything. I come in every morning, pick up my list, and go where I am told, and do what I am told.”
There is rationality to the response by Mary Burke, whose only previous campaign before running for Governor in Wisconsin was for school board. “I have hired the best consultants (many had worked in Obama’s campaigns) and I am going to listen to them.”
Consultants from a distance, however, tend to see every race as similar and apply the same strategies. It is easier than structuring each campaign around the interests and experience of a particular candidate and the characteristics of a particular set of voters. When candidates sense the message given to them doesn’t fit, and the campaign isn’t working, most don’t have local resources to turn to for a fix.
“Cultural fluency”, the ability to instinctively connect with a community, doesn’t come until you have lived there. That hit me when shortly after we first came to Buffalo County, a neighbor said they were moving to the city. I thought Minneapolis, or perhaps Eau Claire. No. They were moving to Mondovi, a small community up the road with a population less than 3,000. The difference in perspective between outsider and native has political implications.
A group from Madison in one of Kathleen’s campaigns did a well-designed, effective, direct mail piece lauding her support for rural schools. One problem. They sent it to voters in Eau Claire. From Madison, Eau Claire may be rural, But in Eau Claire nobody thinks of themselves as rural. Being grounded in the local matters.
This past election, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a 34-year-old rural working-class Democrat, who nobody expected to win, and who received no help from the national party, won in Washington State’s 3rd Congressional District that had elected Republicans for more than a decade.
She speaks local. “We get our water from a well. I get my internet from a radio tower.” We need more members of Congress “with grease under their fingernails.” Small-dollar donations made her campaign possible along with a change in the law that allowed child care to be included as a campaign expense.
She talks practical. “From where I live, it’s a three-hour round trip to go to the Apple Store, Right to repair (requiring companies to make their products easy for owners to repair) hits people on so many levels — their time, their money, their environment, their culture. It’s one of the unique things about American culture. We really believe in fixing our own stuff and self-reliance. D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) is in our DNA.”
For Perez, “It is not just about flipping seats for us. It is about the long work of turning the train around and getting back to place-based politics.”
The argument Maxmin and Woodward make is that successful campaigns are individualized to fit the voters of the district and the candidate. Rejecting what the state committee had given them, they designed and carried out their own direct mail program. More than 5,000 personal handwritten postcards were sent by volunteers to their neighbors. Campaign signs were painted and decorated with images of loons and canoes. Contrary to outside advice, nothing negative was said about any opponent.
When Covid hit in early 2020, they paused the campaign and used their resources to support seniors struggling with the isolation and upheaval of the pandemic. With some 200 volunteers, they made more than 13,500 calls to seniors in the district — regardless of their political affiliation — and offered them rides, pharmacy pickups, connections to food banks, and a buddy to call them every day or week to check in.
Effective organizing (mobilizing people to generate support in a structured way) also has to draw on people from the community. “If you are going to be endorsing or knocking, you need to be from here,” was the reaction of an Iowa resident to the DeSantis Super PAC spending $100 million to send door knockers to talk with voters in early primary states.
DeSantis might have learned from earlier failures. Howard Dean at least had volunteers who traveled by bus to Iowa to knock on doors in 2004. In that same election union members bussed in for Richard Gephardt. Both were equally ineffective, as were the young people who traveled to Maine in 2020 to persuade Maine voters to defeat Susan Collins.
The old political machines delivered because the same familiar face showed up at the door election after election. The precinct captain lived in the neighborhood, brought a six-pack to the summer block party, and had kids in the school around the corner.
Politics is connection. Connection that starts with being yourself. Connection grounded in knowledge, respect and appreciation. Connection that comes from listening for what matters, making lives better. A connection that bonds.
Winning politics is place based and person driven.