Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

July 16, 2013

The Do’s and Don’ts of Cambridge Municipal Election Campaigns

Filed under: 2013 Election,Cambridge,elections — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 2:31 pm

All’s fair in love and war and politics

Well, actually no. There are time-honored traditions in Cambridge municipal election campaigns – some based on tradition and basic courtesy, some based on the law, and some based on the practical politics of elections conducted using Cambridge’s proportional representation (PR) system with its transferable ballots. Here are some rules, regulations, courtesies, and practical suggestions for running a proper PR election campaign in way that will earn you friends and help you to not make enemies.

Don’t engage in negative campaigns. Unless you plan on sailing past the election quota with a surplus of #1 votes, you may need those transfer ballots from defeated candidates. If you attack another candidate whose supporters might have also liked you, then those voters may not list you as a next preference on their ballots. You may need those transfers, so if you must be critical try to be decent about it.

Introduce the competition. There is a long history of candidates attending campaign events for other candidates. Everybody benefits from this and it’s a necessary part of our election system where voters can rank as many candidates on their ballot as they please. If another candidate is very popular and earns a surplus of votes, you may want a share of those transferred surplus ballots. More significantly, if that other candidate is defeated while you’re still in the running, you will definitely want to be a beneficiary when all of that candidate’s ballots become available for transfer. This is one of the most important facts about PR elections. On the other hand, if you see a viable candidate, particularly an incumbent, coming to all your events, you may have every reason to believe that he is rooting for your defeat so that he can get your ballots. So….

Be skeptical of other candidates trying too hard to be your "friend." There’s a good chance that your new friend will be nudging you toward defeat while staying ahead of you in the Count. These new friends will usually be incumbents, but not always. On a positive note, some of your fellow candidates will become your good friends for decades to come. The shared experience of a political campaign can be a bonding experience. It can also leave hard feelings that may never go away.

Don’t steal the spotlight. If you attend the campaign events of other candidates, and you definitely should do this with candidates who have any sort of common appeal, you should never do any overt campaigning at another candidate’s event other than asking for a #2 vote behind the featured candidate. You should always be mindful of when it’s appropriate to campaign and when it’s not appropriate. Voters recognize and respect courtesy.

Those who try to assemble slates of candidates do this for themselves – not for you. That said, you might still derive benefits from being on a slate of candidates, especially if the slate is the invention of the candidates and not of some organization with their own agenda. The Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) successfully used slates of endorsed candidates from the 1940s through the end of the 20th Century to help elect candidates who might not necessarily have won with independent campaigns. It can be very effective, but you should probably be very skeptical of any group who promises you the world for being on their slate. It can also hurt you to be associated with an unpopular group.

MistakeDon’t put your flyers, bumper stickers, or any other campaign materials on utility poles, mailboxes, or any other location other than private property. Not only is this illegal, it is guaranteed to infuriate your fellow candidates. Voters also tend to respond negatively to this kind of aggressiveness. Bear in mind that it’s usually not the candidates who do this, but their loyal and overly zealous supporters. So… instruct your supporters to not do you any favors like this. If you discover any of your campaign stuff in places they don’t belong, remove it promptly.

Find your base. Every successful candidate builds his or her campaign on a base of voters who are most likely to cast their #1 votes for that candidate. If you have no base and think you can win on some kind of "broadcast" campaign where you deliver your brilliant message to a rapt audience who swoon on the magnificence of your words, think again. Most voters will cast their ballots based on some kind of affinity with a candidate. This might be based on some pressing issue of the day or the promise of great new ideas, but it is more likely that the basis will be such things as living in the same neighborhood, sharing some racial or ethnic heritage, sharing the same gender or sexual orientation, having attended high school together, or having spent time in the same places. Once you have identified your base of most likely voters, you can build from there.

SignsSigns don’t vote. This is one of the oldest sayings in Cambridge politics and probably everywhere else. During the days of rent control, this was especially true since landlords would often post signs outside their building even if all the tenants in the building were voting for the other candidates. It’s probably a good idea for new candidates to display some signs and bumper stickers just to get their names out in public. Like it or not, many voters will comment after an election that they never heard of you even if your name was on the ballot.

Spend your money wisely. There are some horror stories of Cambridge candidates who were essentially unknown who spent considerable money on citywide mailings to every registered Cambridge voter and who received fewer votes than the number of signatures on their nomination papers, i.e. less than 50. If you find yourself spending several hundred dollars per #1 vote, you are definitely doing something terribly wrong. Campaigns are not generally cheap, but you have to use your resources wisely by identifying your most likely voters and strategically going after them. This means maintaining a good database and making effective, repetitive contact with your most likely voters. As the story told by Tip O’Neil goes, "people like to be asked." There are some incumbent candidates who run very effective campaigns on a shoestring budget.

Be consistent. If you tell one voter how you feel about some controversial matter and then tell another voter something that contradicts this, you can generally count on those two voters or other voters eventually discovering your inconsistency. The last thing you need in a local election is for the word to spread that you’re dishonest. So just be truthful even if you think it might lose you a vote. You will likely make up for that with the votes of other people. If you choose to tell people only what you think they want to hear, they will see through you like clear glass – and they will also likely vote for another candidate who more sincerely agrees with them.

Above all, be a human being. Never forget that most voters will vote for candidates who they see as representative of themselves, and most people have primarily positive views of themselves. If you come across as arrogant, you will only earn the votes of arrogant voters. If people see the humanity in you, this will always work to your benefit. It will also be a lot easier to live with yourself – regardless whether you win or lose the election.

Any additions? This is just the first draft of what will likely be a growing list. – Robert Winters

1 Comment

  1. Working on a Cambridge campaign this cycle, I learned one very valuable lesson: canvassing matters. It’s the most efficient, cheapest, and highest impact way to spread your message. Cambridge voters LOVE meeting candidates themselves because it creates a personal image of them, instead of just a slogan or mailer. They’re also likely to mention that so-and-so stopped by to their friends and family. This creates an additional word-of-mouth positive for your campaign, and can make a big difference.

    Comment by Noah — November 20, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

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