Seems crazy now, but I thought we could win– if grass roots spread widely; if my advertising choices paid off; if big money and/or big name-recognition didn’t crush; and if God’s hand was in it (in terms of delivering a victory). None of these conditions played out in our favor. Other factors: Having so many candidates was advantageous, but it also prevented us from having debates which might have been helpful to me. (When we had an op to speak, it was usually a 2-3 minute elevator speech– a limited medium for making comparisons between candidates.) Having an off-year primary was useful, since fewer (marginal) voters turned out, but it didn’t make a significant difference.
That said, I’m glad that I thought victory was possible, because that made it much easier to stay motivated! Beyond attending dozens of events, I made 7K calls; we mailed out 5K postcards; we sent 35K texts; and we had 775K targeted banner ads on phones/pc’s. All of those efforts were spread throughout the district. Our only geographically-focused efforts were hundreds of radio ads on four stations (Christian and talk-radio). You rarely know what works in a political campaign. (The only measurables are campaign contributions, volunteers, and yard signs.) In our case, looking at the results, we can confidently say that nothing worked (well), at least in the context of big-money opponents!
We focused on 25K or so of the 32K most-likely voters we could reach through the data we had. But voter turnout was much higher than I expected at 58K. So, my vote total was on the low end of my expectations. But as a result, my vote percentage was much lower than the worst I anticipated. Another implication of the turn-out: we advertised to less than half of those who actually voted. Not good.
I made two other mistakes (neither of which would have made much difference): 1.) When I had good phone calls early in the campaign, we sent a hand-written postcard with a note from me. But we should have followed up more than once. 2.) Until Election Day, when I experienced the boring Clark Co. ballot, I never thought about the potential impact of other races attracting more voters.
With my previous campaign experience, there were some things that I understood relatively well, but other things that I still missed. Even though I have tremendous expertise in policy and some expertise on politics, I was way off in my understanding of some key aspects of the latter. (One small, odd thing: our JPG banner ads had much higher click rates than the equivalent GIF files.)
I’m happy with how hard we ran. (I haven’t worked that hard since late in my undergrad or maybe the first year of grad school. And among our many volunteers, I had four who worked really hard: David on the website; Buddy, Mom, Tonia texting like freaks.) I’m happy with how smart we ran. I could have done things a bit better, but not much. And most important, I’m content with how well we ran, loving the people we came into contact with.
We did best in Floyd and Clark– and relatively well in Monroe and Brown. I was beat by Bill Thomas (someone who made no apparent effort and ran as a Democrat last time) in four counties. Then again, Bill beat quite a few of the lower-tier candidates. (Maybe a plain/popular name helps a bit– at least on the lower end?) We did poorly in terms of votes. But we can’t take this personally, since we were rarely judged personally! (That said, Erin, Mike and Stu might lose some sleep over this!) Only a handful of voters ever considered my candidacy: We weren’t disliked; we were ignored.
All of this lines up beautifully with a key tenet of “Public Choice” economics: the nearly-universal “rationally-ignorant voters”. Since most voters have so little to offer the process– a vote and maybe a few bucks– there is little incentive to gaining knowledge. Instead, you rely on cheap and reasonably effective signals (e.g., party, campaign spending, and yard signs) to make decisions. As such, most voters simply weighed the three big-money candidates, based on a policy issue, impression from ads, etc.
As for the race itself:
Big money was a necessary but not sufficient condition to win. Big money was required to have a shot. After that, the quality of the campaign and the perceived quality of candidate were decisive.
The best (big-money) candidate won. Objectively, Erin ran the best race. She has the best resume. She was specific in describing both her past record and her plans for the future. She raised big money; she connected with the establishment; and she had a good ground game. Her margin of victory in Lawrence Co. (not her home county!) was enough to beat all of us, even if she didn’t win another county.
The most-likely-to-be-conservative (big-money) candidate won. Erin seems to have a solid and broad conservative record as a state legislator. My only concern is her (rapidly) increasing connections with “the establishment.” But hopefully, she won’t compromise (or will get stronger). Mike was reliably conservative when he was in Congress on everything except fiscal matters. (See: the grades he received from the National Taxpayers Union. See also: being average in a big-spending Congress can’t be considered fiscally conservative.) Stu might be conservative, but has no record and his promises were too vague to inspire much confidence.
Earned media was of marginal importance at most. Radio and TV didn’t actively cover the race, as expected. The newspapers in the district have become far less active since I ran in 2006-08. (You could see the trend from 2006 to 2008 with the Bloomington paper. But all of the newspapers have faded in terms of political relevance since then.) The Indy Star was quite active and seemed biased– with its early puff piece for Houchin, 1.5 (legitimate) pokes at Sodrel and Barnes-Israel, and a juicy topic they never raised. But their impact was probably tiny.
The candidates were mostly collegial– and always with me. I really enjoyed my time with J, Jim, Dan, and Brian. Stu and Erin were friendly, although it was easier for me to talk with Erin than Stu (not sure why). It was most awkward with Mike. We have some history– no big deal to me, but perhaps something from his perspective. Then again, he seemed to be awkward with most/all of us. It was all friendly within the lower-tier, because we didn’t take ourselves or the process too seriously. It was friendly enough between the tiers because we were no threat and everyone was nice enough. It got a bit chippy in the ads between the three big-money candidates, so they didn’t talk much. But the ads didn’t seem especially brutal, so this was simply par (or even birdie) for an often-unfortunate course.
Sadly, the process was quite a bit more sterile than my general election runs in 2006 and 2008. First, the timing was tight and the pace was blistering. We only had 13 weeks to put everything together. Second, most of the efforts were concentrated among political types– given the pacing, the paucity of off-year primary voters, and the need to vet and promote candidates for many different offices. Third, because you weren’t going to talk with many people, it put more weight on impersonal advertising.
Good times, all in all. I was called to run, but I wasn’t called to win. Good news: I can return to my wonderful, purpose-filled normal life! We learned that big money is essential in national politics. Not sure what the future holds for the country. I wasn’t optimistic about turning things around with respect to spending and debt. But with the power of money and the establishment, I’m less excited about the ability of Congress in general, and the GOP in particular, to take us where we ought to go. It’s a good thing we have greater things in which we should place our trust.
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