Running to Win: Independent Q&A with Bill Hillsman, Part 2

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The last time a third party candidate realistically challenged the two-party duopoly was in 1992, when Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran against President George H.W. Bush and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

By mid-April, Perot was polling ahead of both men–a level of independent success that has yet to be repeated. By the summer of 1992, Perot withdrew from the race, only to jump back in by October. It’s a move that left many wondering, what could have been and why did he do it?

Bill Hillsman, author of Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Race at a Time, CEO of North Woods Advertising and founder of Independent Voters of America offers his insight as to what might have motivated Perot, if success like his could be built upon, and the implications of debate inclusion for independent candidates.

This Q&A is the second of two parts. You can find the first part here.

Independent Voter Network: What made Ross Perot withdraw and then jump back into the race during the presidential election in 1992?

Hillsman: I was studying that race pretty carefully, long before we got asked to help the campaign late in October. I was looking at it more from an advertising professional’s perspective than a politico, and it suddenly dawned on me– in late-June, early-July of 1992– that as a private-sector citizen, Perot did not like the press scrutiny. He didn’t like all those people looking into his background and into his family, which he felt was especially out of bounds. Now normally if you are a candidate, you can’t afford for that not to happen. You need the press attention and the earned media. But he had always intended to spend millions, so dropping out for the summer was a win-win situation. It got the press to stop following him around, and no one really pays attention in the summer months, anyways, particularly more independent and non-partisan voters. Then, with 8-9 weeks of campaigning left, he still had about $69 million to spend.    That’s about on par with what products like Pepsi would spend in two months. So he shortened the playing field, and still had enough ad money to match or dominate his competition in the fall. I think it was by design all along.

But modern-day campaigning makes a similar move today highly unlikely. In this day and age, with the 24-hour news cycle and the sheer amount of money spent, it’s not realistic to be off the stage all summer.

What about a wealthy independent, like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who could largely self-fund a campaign if needed?

Hillsman: It would take the wealth of someone like that to make something like [Perot’s run in 1992] happen again.

But there was no feasible route to victory for [Bloomberg]. He couldn’t win enough electoral votes. Even early on, when looking at states he had legitimate chance of winning, it just wasn’t there. States don’t award electoral votes proportionally, in most states it’s a winner take all situation. If they were awarded by congressional district, Bloomberg would have a chance. It would make a big difference. But until then, it’s very difficult to get a majority of electoral votes and win [a presidential election] as an independent–especially when the election goes to the Democrat and Republican-controlled House of Representatives if there is no majority.

What do you think having a third person on stage at the national debates would mean?

Hillsman: It changes the dynamic, there’s no doubt about it. It would have been VERY interesting to see someone like Ralph Nader in the presidential debates in 2000. In fact, there was a big national stink about it at the time, because the organizers seemed to come up with new reasons all the time not to include Nader. To see the effect [of debate inclusion] on a presidential level, you have to go back to Perot’s participation in 1992. Debates demonstrably change the dynamic of any election– we’ve seen it have a huge effect in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections. And you saw it to a large degree in the Republican primaries this year.  So, it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t demonstrably change debates on a presidential level.

What effect does debate inclusion have on state and local races?

Hillsman: When debates are televised, that’s a lot of people you are reaching without spending advertising money. You can make a big impact.

We saw [this] in 2009 with Chris Daggett in New Jersey, going up against Chris Christie and Jon Corzine for governor. He was fantastic in the debate and he got a bump. One of the absolute keys to Jesse Ventura’s victory in Minnesota was his performance in debates.

The reverse happened in Texas with Rick Perry versus [Kinky] Freidman in 2006. The incumbent, Perry, refused to do more than one debate and even had it scheduled on a Friday evening during the state’s high school football games. If you’ve ever seen the movie or the TV series Friday Night Lights, you know how important high school football is in Texas. Not that many people were going to watch, but it was still a big opportunity, because the press was going to report heavily on it and because any major happenings in the debate would be replayed over and over. Kinky had one, and only one, debate opportunity in that election, and he bombed. [His performance] took him from the high teens to maybe 10-11%, where he ended up.

What’s your take on the effectiveness of grassroots fundraising through using the internet, like Ron Paul and his infamous “Money Bombs”?

Hillsman: My problem with Ron Paul and these libertarian campaigns, while they are good at raising significant amounts of money, they’ve never been very good at spending it, or even accounting for where that money goes. They must be spending it the same way they are raising it–in very diffused ways. That’s not necessarily bad, but there never seems to be an overall strategic way they are spending it. I’ve never seen any evidence of a sharp regional or national media strategy. Once you have that amount of money, you have to use it to amplify your message, and concentrate that message on persuadable voters. You have to reach people in ways that are NOT just one person at a time. I don’t think the failures are Ron Paul’s fault– he’s done a good job of telling people what he stands for…it’s the fault of whoever is strategizing the campaign.

That, and Ron Paul is trying to run as a Republican when he isn’t a Republican. That’s fine if you want to get your message heard in Republican primaries. But it’s not a path to victory.

What figure should independents be aiming for in terms of fundraising?

Hillsman: The way congressional campaigns operate today you need to bank at least between $1-2 million, particularly if you’re in major media market. For Senate races, in many states it’s an absolute minimum of $5 million and more like $10 million. And for presidential races, well…there may be a couple BILLION dollars spent this election cycle, including all the independent expenditures, and ¾ of it will be spent on the presidential race. The Citizens United decision just exacerbated the whole situation.

And that’s a shame…it’s a big change. [Campaigns] didn’t always used to be like that. In the mid-90’s, it took tens of thousands or dollars or relatively low hundreds of thousands of dollars to run for Congress. Normal people are pretty much shut out of the process.

Should independents, without a larger party structure, look to raise that kind of money through small donors? 

Hillsman: The problem with small donations is it’s a chicken and egg situation. A lot of people have to know about you to raise money from small donors, but you need money to create that awareness. If you have enough seed funding to get people pretty whipped up from the start, it can be a viable strategy. But you need money at some point in the equation, and if you need money to start your campaign, it’s unlikely the money would come from small donors alone. That’s why so many candidates today have to have some amount of personal wealth.

Read more insights from Bill Hillsman and on the independent voter movement over at Independent Voters of America.