Op-Ed: Win or Lose, The Poorest Campaigns of the 2012 Season

Bob Filner Carl DeMaio San Diego Mayoral RaceThe best-kept secret about elections is that the outcomes are, more often than not, inevitable regardless of the campaign waged by each side. Regardless of the race, Californian’s have arguably witnessed some of the poorest campaigns of the 2012 season.

Savvy political consultants know that their success is more a function of “picking” winners than “making” winners.  The demographics of a given political jurisdiction and external events not controllable by a campaign are almost always exponentially more powerful than the campaigns themselves.

Nevertheless, massive sums of money are spent in contested campaigns through increasingly longer campaign seasons. There is an old saying amongst political pros that is more true today than ever. “Ninety percent of the money spent in politics is wasted, the trick is finding the ten percent that matters.”

In 2012, fate and demographics dealt San Diego more than its share of the ninety percent.

This is largely the result of the confluence of two races: the contest for mayor between Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner, and the race for Congress in the 52nd District between Brian Bilbray and Scott Peters. Caught in the backwash of all of this is what should be a “noncompetitive” race between Marty Block and George Plescia for the 39th State Senate District.

The reason why the fate of these three races are inextricably connected is because of the inherently competitive nature of the demographics of the Congressional seat which make it one of the top targets for Washington-based partisan political operatives.

The 52nd has one of the highest independent voter registrations of any Congressional seat in the country, and a pool of both Democratic and Republican voters who have a history of splitting tickets as they move up and down the ballot.

This meant that, from the beginning, both partisan election machines were destined to keep spending in the 52nd right up to 8pm on Tuesday night. No amount of polling could ever demonstrate a clear and convincing inevitability of outcome (and if it did the political consultants have an economic interest in spinning such results into the “if I just had another million bucks” interpretation).

So, millions of dollars pour into San Diego from the nationally funded campaigns targeted at the communities that also happen to be where the swing voters in the election for Mayor also live. The reason this is important is because it means that the partisan “get out the vote” operations in the 52nd will be aimed at skewing the turnout in each sides favor. It is the respective confidence in these “GOTV” operations, that is the real reason why we are all blessed with the overwhelming negative campaign messaging.

It is all consciously designed to create sharp divisions within the electorate so that it is easier to identify core “loyal” voters. After all you don’t want to spend all that time and money turning out voters that vote for the other guy.

This is where one arrives at the connection between the race for Mayor and the Congressional race. It is this connection that makes the DeMaio/Filner campaign one of the rare exceptions to the “Campaigns Don’t Matter” rule.

It is difficult to fairly judge campaigns these days because so much of the money and the decision-making are farmed out to independent expenditure committees. But, I think it is fair to say that the Filner campaign has been, at best “unfocused” while the collective impact of the pro DeMaio efforts have been far more systematic in execution and more clearly themed.

This has created a problem for Filner in the critical last week of the campaign in which the political operatives turn away from messaging into executing their GOTV plans. Unlike the Congressional and Legislative races, the candidates for Mayor do not display their political party preference on the ballot and Filner clearly is concerned that the Democratic partisan turnout effort may not pay off for him the way it should.

This is one reasons why Filner is airing TV commercials in the last week of the campaign identifying him as a “progressive Democrat.” Meantime, DeMaio’s messaging features a broad-based appeal to independents, Democrats and union members.

The first rule of every campaign consultant is “do no harm”. The demographics of this campaign always favored Filner. DeMaio’s camp had to move the needle to overcome these disadvantages and they took some of the risks necessary to get them in the game. But, the campaign with the inherent advantage does not have to play even to maintain that advantage. Remarkably, the Filner campaign at almost every stage of the game not only played into the hands of the DeMaio narrative, they actually accentuated the DeMaio claims by closing on a partisan appeal at exactly the time when it is least effective.

In the end, Filner’s demographic advantage is so vast and the GOTV operation so large in the 52nd that this may not matter. But, what is undeniable is that the Filner campaign itself is responsible for this race even being competitive.

By contrast, the Marty Block Senate campaign is a study in how to handle a campaign in which the demographics naturally should lead to a win. The 39th shares most of its territory with the 52nd. But, the differences are profound. Put in simple terms, the nonpartisan Political Data, Inc. ranks the 52nd as +2 Republican and the 39th as +20 Democratic.

The Block campaign has zeroed in on two issues in which polling and focus groups clearly favor Block over his opponent, former Republican Assemblyman George Plescia. The Block campaign has stuck to these themes on TV, in the mail and on the web. This is what competent campaigns do when the odds are on their side.

Interestingly, the Plescia campaign has also found a single issue, which they think they have the advantage on – taxes. But, because the District is viewed as off-the-table for Republicans, there has not been a great deal of funding behind that message.

The net result is that Block, who should win this race by double digits, probably will do so. Filner, who should have coasted to a high single digit win, is now a craps shoot.

In both cases the final results will be massively influenced by the Peters – Bilbray get out the vote operations. That one race will be measured only by the margin of victory and the other by who wins is testament that, while it is true that campaigns usually don’t matter, the consequence of running a really bad campaign is generally more significant than running a really good one.

Sometimes candidates would have been better off saving the whole ninety percent; even if it was the “wrong” ninety percent.