Writings and observations

Message: Turnout is the key

When Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski hired consultant Jim Ross to run his re-election campaign on Wednesday, he apparently gave little indication why Ross, whose campaigns have centered in the San Francisco area where he lives, was his choice. (His previous manager resigned after the primary election.)

We can only guess what Kulongoski’s reasons were. But after checking into Ross, his background, his campaigns and his views on the subject, we can suggest at least one very good one: He may have concluded that turnout will be the key to winning the November election, and he wants on board one of his party’s top experts in making it happen – and Ross is, and has.

His signature race also has some hallmarks similar to this one. In 2003 Willie Brown was retiring as mayor of San Francisco, and a range of people filed for the job. The general election resulted in a mid-sized win for Gavin Newsom, a businessman who had won elective office in San Francisco a few times. But there would be a runoff, and polling quickly showed a very close race with second-place Matt Gonzalez; both were Board of Supervisors members, but Gonzalez seemed to have energized more of the liberal activist core – a key to winning in The City. (Does the dynamic – a close race as the two-way runoff begins – sound a bit familiar?)

Enter Ross. In a short but influential (certainly much linked-to) article on line, Ross described what happened that gave Newsom a strong runoff win.

In December of 2003 while managing Gavin Newsom’s mayoral race we identified the need to effect turn-out in his favor in order to win the election. San Francisco’s mayoral elections are traditionally close and very hard fought campaigns that attract national attention. They have also been a testing ground for voter turnout techniques and voter identification.

During the course of the campaign we learned several things:
• You can start voter identification early and those voters that endorse early, if you communicate with them, will stick with you.
• Reach out to areas or communities that may not universally support you, a campaign can find pockets of support in even the most hostile areas.
• If possible use vote by mail or absentee voting and early voting to extend your GOTV efforts.
• Use volunteers to reach the voters you can’t reach through other means.

There’s nothing unique about most of these ideas, but by various accounts Ross worked through ways to carry most of them out; the article lines out a number of the tactics. Results: “On Election Day Gavin Newsom lost. He won Election Night because he received 20,000 more absentee votes than Matt Gonzalez.”

If the name Newsom vaguely rings a bell, it may be because he was the mayor who tried to “legalize” gay marriage in San Francisco. Some Oregon Republicans may jump on the ross selection on that account. But consider this desciption in Salon of the political fallout for Newsom locally: “His staff has spun the rancor of national Democrats into political gold for the new mayor, who was widely viewed as the conservative candidate in last year’s election and is now beloved by local progressives.”

There’s also another related echo. Remember how the primary election this year drew below-average turnout? Here was the take at the Newsom campaign on runoff election day, 2003: “Gavin Newsom’s campaign manager Jim Ross said it was harder to motivate people for this election than it had been in either of the campaigns that he ran for former San Francisco mayor Frank Jordan. ‘It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen,’ he said. ‘There’s usually a lot more heat by now.’ By 4:00 a.m, lights were on at Newsom headquarters on Van Ness. Soon, fueled by coffee and more than 40 dozen doughnuts, 100 volunteers were walking six-block precincts.”

Whatever else Kulongoski has or lacks at this point, he may have found a strategic direction.

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