The Senatorial election here in Virginia was a close race, if you recall. Less than 16,000 voters separated incumbent Mark Warner (D) from Ed Gillespie (R). The campaigns were remarkably different; with different expectations from the party base to campaign resources. Yet, the average voter was largely unaware of the strategies and stress of the election.
Enter the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). This non-profit was formed to specifically track campaign financing for national, state, and local elections in Virginia. They also host public round table discussions that review campaigns.
On Veterans Day, VPAP and George Mason University invited the public to listen to David Hallock of the Mark Warner campaign and Paul Logan of the Ed Gillespie campaign talk about the 2014 Senate election. This event, called After Virginia Votes, was moderated by GMU School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs Dean Mark Rozell.
What was shared was an interesting discussion of how campaigns, parties, voters, and special interest are shaping the government of our country. These linkage institutions have fundamentally shaped electoral results, policy agendas, and governance. So, let's go local and take a look at elections up close and personal.
1. Campaign Finance: In keeping with the trend that the candidate who spends the most wins between 80 - 90% of the time, Mark Warner outspent Ed Gillespie. In this case, Warner outspent Gillespie 2 to 1. Gillespie's campaign did not have the depth, and a strategy to sit on the money until the late summer/early fall was discussed. Despite this decision to spend conservatively and hold onto resources Logan recanted how the Gillespie campaign had to correct misconceptions that the campaign was broke in mid-October. These misconception caused some new outlets to speculate about mismanagement of funds or inability to capture voter's attention in the eleventh hour.
2. Outside spending: Particularly fascinating here was Hallock's perspective. He acknowledged that outside spending can be problematic to the campaign. Primarily, the campaign is not able to control their own message or tactical decisions in the campaign. Even if an outside group is supportive of your campaign, they have their own interest and may distort or spin factual information in such a way that their favored candidate has to respond to clarify the message. This can change the focus of an election.
3. Advertising and outreach to base: Each campaign used different campaign tactics to mobilize their base and reach the median voter.
Gillespie worked with limited funding. Starting with the nominating convention, Gillespie worked hard to present himself to the party organization and the party in the electorate to win over voters one by one. He specifically wanted to create a "volunteer army."His personal touch, asking each member of the party organization at the Republican Convention for their vote, was reiterated in later tactics in the election.
The Gillespie campaign believed that more substance was necessary in order to win. An anti-incumbent sentiment would not get Ed into office, the campaign had to be specific in their platform. Gillespie would take time to have weekly tele-conferences with local committees and even moderate voters. He would field questions on his campaign and platform from those participating in the tele-conference while he traveled from campaign stop to campaign stop.
Gillespie also hired a social media guru to work on his social media presence as much as possible, though specific tactics were not discussed at the discussion.
Warner had more funding, and used that money to hire much more sophisticated electorate modeling services used by the Obama campaigns. He specifically spent $3M to hire Civis Analytics, who helped sort through voting data to come up with a road map for the campaign. Warner knew he had to overcome obstacles in being an incumbent, in mobilizing the Democrat base, which is notoriously unresponsive in off-year elections.
Warner also used micro-targeting, specifically with the addressable advertising technology. Here, candidates can pay to send advertisements to targeted cable boxes based on collected subscriber information. This means that commercials seen during live TV may vary from house to house, based on what you are watching and your entire watching history. Yes, the cable companies know what you like to watch, and they even know what that if you watch The Big Bang Theory, you tend to be a republican. Enjoy that one.
Couple this with the idea of using technology like that used in Shazam to listen to the advertisements on television so that your smartphone can sync up and enhance your experience... without your permission. You do have a comeback: the 'old' (meaning circa 2012) technology in SuperPAC app or Ad Hawk, which helps you discern who is paying for the ads while they air. So, yay for you.
4. Campaign Ads: Both sides were asked to mention the most effective ad their opponent ran.
The Warner camp did not like this ad. They stated it was misleading (included confirmation votes, procedural votes, etc.) but was effective. The Gillespie campaign really wanted Warner to campaign on his time as a Senator instead of as a Governor, and knew that it would make him an unpopular incumbent.
The Warner camp honed in on Gillespie's work as a political insider and his former experience in working with Enron. The Warner camp was surprised this ad did as well as it did; they were not sure the American public would recall the Enron scandal.
5. Outside impacts: Frank discussions were had about the impact of the Bob McDonnell trial (which sucked up all the oxygen in VA politics throughout the summer), the mark of Obama on Warner (there was work to show Warner as a separate entity, a 'radical centrist' or 'bipartisan problem solver': Obama's unpopularity polled at 58% in exit polls, yet Warner's approval rating was 56%), the chaos in the Cantor loss and how it impacted the seventh district (more a tea party factional issue), and finally that of Libertarian Robert Sarvis (Not sure impacted Republicans; many of his voters may not have voted if Sarvis wasn't on the ballot. He did hemorrhage support, polling at 7% of the vote going into the election, and only got 2%). It would have been even more fascinating if Sarvis's campaign was there to field some of these questions. This is, after all, the second office he has campaigned for in as many years.
I was probably most shocked by some of the questions from the audience. One gentleman wanted a instant run-off ballot instituted in Virginia to minimize the impact of independent parties. I found this hilarious given that the very nature of the nomination process in Virginia is rather controversial. Kicking voters out to preserve two party rule? Really?
Couple this with the inquiry on the impact of Voter IDs in Virginia and Hallock's belief in the need of a no-excuse absentee ballot, and you have an interesting discussion. Folks from all parties and all levels of interest were involved.
If you are interested in learning a bit more for yourself, listen in at the VPAP website.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan