This is a short history of how a state house seat was taken from a long time incumbent. I believe many of these techniques will work in other house districts (or any other election for that matter). Warning! This method involved a lot of work by a lot of dedicated people. But it was all great fun.
My newly elected Illinois State Representative is Mike Unes. He’s a great young guy who lives not far from me. He was a member of the East Peoria City Council and has been part of a group which has done great things for this city (keeping taxes flat, bringing in new business, and balancing the budget).
While I was not on his campaign staff, I did a lot of volunteer work for the campaign. This is my view of how and why he won by a very good margin (55%-45%) in a heavily unionized district, (Caterpillar is the largest employer in the area with UAW having a strong presence) against a long term Democrat incumbent.
This isn’t rocket science and much of this has been done before, but sometimes the simplicity of the process makes it seem too old fashioned or they just get overlooked. So here is my simple overview of how to defeat an incumbent Democrat.
1. Knock on every door in the district at least one time. We actually used walking lists based on the voter roles. Mike used a commercial product that produced lists similar to the what PROCINCT will produce. I’m sure we missed a couple of houses, but not many. At every home we left a brochure, we had one designed to be handed to a person, another with a hook for a door hanger for those who weren’t home. Make sure you have the name of the person you talked to marked. This is probably the single most effective action that was taken and greatly helped to combat the negative ads that the incumbent used.
2. Ask people if you can place a sign in their yard. If the person you talked to was willing to support Mike or at least not hostile, we’d ask if we could place a sign in their yard. Mike phrased the question in a way that it was harder to say no. But the important thing was to ask.
3. Keep a list of people’s responses. This was critical. And this is also not anything new. Lincoln once recommended that the Whigs use these techniques “to make a perfect list of all the voters in their respective districts and to ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote.”
4. Pick a date and make all the signs in an area appear overnight. It was really impressive to wake up one morning and find the entire city covered in Mike’s signs. This was a very dramatic effect. I don’t know if it gave him any additional votes, but it did leave an impression. Some people think signs don’t matter much (Scott Brown’s campaign manager said this at a training event I attended), but they are useful tools. If nothing else, people who have a sign in their yard are more likely to get out and vote.
5. Keep in contact with the people who expressed support. This is a little easier in this day and age when we have phones, texts and email, but this also is nothing new (read the Lincoln letter above). The trick is to balance it so that people feel informed and involved without feeling spammed.
6. Remind those people who gave positive responses a reminder to vote just before the election. In the days before the election, volunteers canvased precincts and left reminder door hangers on the doors of those who gave positive responses to initial contacts. In my precinct committeeman training, the man who gave the talk said “just hit the Republicans, we don’t want to stir up the other guys much”.
8. Do NOT go nasty negative. Stick to real facts and differences between you and your opponent. There is a difference between negative and nasty. People don’t like nasty.
Mike had a radio ad that had a GPS that kept saying “You’re going the wrong way” and “turn around” to the incumbent with a voice over talking about the budget problems. That was a “negative” ad, but funny, accurate and to the point.
The incumbent ran ads that were outright lies and were nasty negative. He had an ad with a woman who’s dad died in a nursing home, then went on to say that Mike Unes had accepted money from a group that had taken money from an owner of OTHER nursing homes. Ending with “that’s so wrong”. It turns out the group that accepted donations from an owner of A nursing home was the Illinois Republican Party. He had a similar one with “accepting money from allies of insurance companies” (turned out to be a local independent insurance agent) and they concluded that therefor Mike wanted you to die from preexisting conditions. These ads turned a few people off the incumbent, especially when the truth behind the ads started to surface.
9. Be genuine. Mike is a natural.
10. Have a LARGE family and lots of friends. This is part of the great candidate selection process. I knocked on several doors where the person answering said something like “YES!, Mike’s my cousin. Give me a BIG sign.” Mike is Lebanese, a very tight knit community in this area, which helped him get a lot of support (and donations) regardless of party affiliation. Ray LaHood is also part of the local Lebanese community.
11. Target legitimate incumbent weaknesses. I already mentioned Illinois’ budget mess which was used something like this “Mike was able to work with Republicans and Democrats to balance this city’s budget, we’d like to send him to Springfield to do the same thing.” The incumbent also had a reputation for poor constituent services. If you called his office to ask a question about a bill, you’d be unlikely to get a response from the staff and they’d never call you back with an answer. I’d use this, “If you have a question call the campaign headquarters, Mike will be happy to talk to you. He’s not like the current guy.”
Like I said, this isn’t really all that complex, but it DID take a lot of time and effort on Mike’s part. I’m happy to say it was worth the effort.