Post-TX28: Constructive questions for this & future campaigns

With the apparent loss of Rodriguez to Cuellar, some are celebrating the netroots' major assist to Ciro and optimistically touting this as an honorable defeat in TX-28 that will lead to future victory there and elsewhere.

Others are disappointed, wondering what went wrong, and in a few cases pointing fingers at those who, they feel, failed to deliver despite intense support from Democrats all over the nation.

As someone who has been intensely involved with election campaigns on a local level, I have a strong interest in the mechanics of politics. This experience leads me to be skeptical of those trying to find a silver lining in this loss, while also discounting criticism that is not aimed at identifying specific problems -- and at building commitment to solving them in the future.

I'm not trying to armchair quarterback here, but rather to learn from a defeat. I've spent many, many hours preparing poll watchers and inspectors, building GOTV databases, designing mailers, courting candidates, defining campaign messages, poring over election law, helping to prepare challenges and lawsuits, writing press releases, going door-to-door, registering voters, and other nitty-gritty of local elections. I say this not to brag, but just to convey that for underdogs to win requires a virtually endless commitment to nailing down every detail.

When campaigns leave things to chance, or just cross their fingers, or say, "well, we did what we could," those candidates lose. People like Karl Rove are not geniuses; rather, they just work much harder on every detail of campaigns, over a long period of time, and don't accept mediocre results.

With all that said, here are some constructive questions that occur to me, strictly as an outside observer, that might be worth asking the Ciro campaign, and keeping in mind in future contests in that district and around the country. Those questions appear after the jump...

(1) Given the importance of early voting in this (and previous) elections, what was the campaign's strategy for convincing likely early voters to vote for Ciro? Why did he fare so poorly among early voters?

(2) Given that this was an open primary, what was done to take that crucial fact into account? (Since much of the netroots seemed to be unaware that non-Democrats were able to vote in the primary, there seems to be some concern that this dynamic may have been neglected.) Were non-affiliated voters and members of third parties courted, or just the Democratic base?

(3) The press has stated that the Ciro campaign was "low-impact" until the netroots got involved. It is clear that the netroots can greatly assist a campaign monetarily, and even with volunteers, but that without a strong, local, on-the-ground team, there is a limit to what outside help can do. Is it true that the Rodriguez campaign was floundering until the netroots came up with a ton of cash, and if so, why?

(4) Cuellar improved his performance across the board, according to some reports. Why is that, when there was such an influx of additional (netroots) funding this time? What did he do that improved his performance, and is the presence of a third candidate enough to explain Ciro's drop-off?

(5) Given that for the second time in a row, so much of Cuellar's support came from Webb, what was the campaign's strategy for blunting the impact of Webb this time around? Did the campaign attempt (per Rove) to go after Cuellar's strength?

(6) It has been said by some commentators that Ciro's campaign to win back this seat began right after the 2004 election. What was done, exactly, during those two years, in terms of voter registration, fundraising, raising issues, cultivating and training volunteers, and most importantly building a strong GOTV effort in anticipation of this primary?

(7) Lastly, given the suspicion among some (but not all) of voting irregularities in Webb, what was done to prepare for such an eventuality, e.g. having election lawyers monitor polling places, flacking the local board of elections to put them on notice that the election would be carefully scrutinized, et al.? (Note, however, it does not appear that Ciro is alleging vote fraud in Webb.)

These questions are not intended to fall on side or another of the various arguments about the outcome; and again, not having been directly involved, some of these questions may be off-base. But I believe they are, at minimum, the kinds of questions Democratic underdogs must ponder, anticipate, and work on if better results are to be obtained in the future all over the country.

Tags: ciro, Ciro Rodriguez, Cuellar, election strategy, Primaries, Primary, texas, TX-28 (all tags)




Always appreciated. Even more appreciated, though, would be thoughts on the above questions. Are they fair questions, and if so, what are the answers?

I've seen losing campaigns morph into winning ones after two or even three cycles. But only because those involved re-doubled their efforts and learned from their mistakes.

by Hudson 2006-03-08 07:27AM | 0 recs
Also recommended

Dataguy has a diary on related themes that was posted about the same time as mine: 47

by Hudson 2006-03-08 07:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Post-TX28: Constructive questions

Obviously you are far more competent and professional in your evaluation.  I too, as you note, am concerned that huge amounts of concern is raised and expended on the web, with little being shown on the ground.  

The netroots have an ability to get up a concern.  We need to find out that a candidate is not just doing net stuff, but is also doing all the other things to win.  Sort of a "better candidates bureau" for up-and-comers.  I have contributed several times over the last several years to people, and been burned once or twice. Not that I expect to win, but in some cases like Bean in IL-08, I have been really annoyed with how DINO she is.

by dataguy 2006-03-08 09:18AM | 0 recs

Thanks for the comments, Dataguy. You raised a number of things that I didn't in your diary, so they are complementary...

What troubles me somewhat is that despite the plethora of emails from organizations like DFA and MoveOn, professing to mobilize the net/grassroots, and touting candidate trainings and the like, there seems to be a real lack of depth to much of the activity... Or maybe it's just that not enough people are taking them up on their offers, because doing more than filling out a form online takes up more time and energy than most people have.

In the area where I live, most of the Democratic campaigns from the local to the Federal level are incredibly disorganized, bordering on incompetent. Others just don't listen to their constituents, and end up making obvious but avoidable blunders that alienate supporters and lose votes.

by Hudson 2006-03-08 10:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

It also bears mentioning that some of that training--for example, Progressive Majority and Camp Wellstone--is really brutal and intense. I've done both, and I've learned enormously from both.

You have to be very open-minded and accepting of criticism, though, and some of my fellow trainees weren't, so they didn't like the training. Also, if you've got the feeling that you've got politics figured out, those trainings will disabuse you of that notion with a quickness. One of the things that I've noticed about a lot of folks on our side of the fence is that they are just as eager for validation and intolerant of criticism as folks on the other side.

by Arkhangel 2006-03-08 01:02PM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

The best training is doing.

I don't know what goes on at these trainings, and I'm sure one could get something out of them.

But there is just no substitute for going out and getting directly involved in a campaign -- not in a casual "I'm going to make a few calls and drop off a few leaflets" level, but deeply invovled. Start knocking on doors. Register voters. Become a poll watcher or inspector. Craft messages. Recruit candidates. Run for office.

Once you start acting, it becomes real clear, real fast, what works and what doesn't.

No doubt that is the type of knowledge that these seminars try to dispense, but the one person I know who went to one did not improve as a candidate -- he was the one person in our recent (successful) local campaign who let people down by not following through on his tasks.

Sitting around talking about how to campaign is one thing, but until practice and theory intersect in action, it's all just talk. And some people don't learn well in an academic setting, but need to be pushed on stage to get them to act.

by Hudson 2006-03-08 02:32PM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

There is a tremendous resistence to certain criticisms on left, just as on the right.  

Here are forbidden topics that will get you in big trouble on the left:

1) Any statement casting political doubt on the gay marriage issue.  If you won't say that "gay marriage will help elect dems" you will get roasted by a number of activists.

2) Any question about political statements at funerals.  I got in huge trouble at DKos due to my questions here.

Many on the left are just as intollerant as the right, just on different issues.

by dataguy 2006-03-09 05:14AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

I agree.

Just one point about your comment:  Have you ever received a reply to a request, comment, suggestion, idea or notion that you might have sent to the national, regional, local or other aspect of the Dems? I am a pretty smart guy, in some ways, and have made a number of suggestions, mostly on email.  It's like dropping them into a well.  PLUNK! that's all you get.

The entire dialog is 1) they ask for money and 2) I sometimes give it.  Nothing else.

by dataguy 2006-03-09 05:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

Yep, I've definitely had that experience.

A bunch of us in the town I live in addressed it by running candidates in a Democratic primary for local committee seats, and for candidates for municipal offices.

It took us a few tries, but in November we achieved both control of our local Democratic Committee (so we're the ones fielding the calls and emails) and a majority on our small city's Common Council.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then you win, as the saying goes...

by Hudson 2006-03-09 05:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

Gosh.  Direct democracy. What a concept.

You certainly have made me think carefully.  Who is that "they" anyway?

by dataguy 2006-03-09 06:43AM | 0 recs
some possible answers

As someone who grew up in one of the counties in what's now TX-28, and who's been in every county in the district (well, except for Zapata, and frankly there's not much reason to go there) I think I might be able to shed some light.

No idea on points 1, 2 and 5-7.  I don't live there anymore, and even though I follow the district (family still lives there) I couldn't tell you what the ins and outs of the campaign itself were.  

On #3, it's true that Ciro didn't have a lot of cash before the netroots kicked in.  There was speculation early on that Richard Raymond would join the race.  Raymond is also from Laredo and is a fairly popular state senator.  There are other politicians in SA who were thinking about the race, and that probably hurt Ciro in the fundraising department.  Essentially, the district was forced to line up either behind Cuellar or behind Ciro.  They just didn't line up early enough behind Ciro.  There were also other high profile races in San Antonio, which doubtlessly hurt fundraising.  The areas of San Antonio where the high profile races were are not affluent in the least.  Politicking in the area is very much who you know, who you've worked with, word-of-mouth, and believe it or not there's a lot of family ties involved also.  

On #4, though, I believe Cuellar improved his standing not solely because he was the incumbent but because of a sense of pride in Laredo and Webb County (and to an extent Zapata County).  Cuellar's voting record goes out the window when it comes to a local, homegrown boy in Congress.  I may be completely wrong, but as far as I know, Laredo has always been split into 2 districts, usually being matched up with portions of the lower Rio Grande Valley, and sometimes partitioned up with parts of the "brush country" that makes up the area between the border and San Antonio to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the east.  Simply put, Laredo hasn't had personal, homegrown representation in Congress.  And keeping that meant a lot of the people there, no matter his voting record.  

One thing to understand about the South Texas border area is that it is largely forgotten.  The only attention the area gets comes from the after effects of NAFTA...whether it's the improvement in highways or the influx of money, or the maquiladoras moving across the border to Mexico.    Cuellar brought home the bacon to Laredo and is a source of local pride, I'm sure.  It's odd to think of an American city of 200,000+ being "forgotten" but that's largely what Laredo is.  Growth along the border is far faster than other areas, yet this area is woefully ignored.  I cannot emphasize enough the personal pride involved in having direct representation in Congress.  Think "Local boy done good" on a much larger scale.  No matter what anyone could say about Cuellar, he was/is Laredo's shining star.  As loyal as people are in South Texas, Cuellar's status is locked up even further because of that.  It's a mix of pride and family that doesn't really look at ideological distinctions between candidates.

The presence of the 3rd candidate (in my opinion) did not affect Ciro at all in any appreciable way.  Victor Morales is a perennial candidate these days, and while we think fondly of him for taking 44% against Phil Gramm in '96, Morales has not shown the guts to stay politically involved or the tenacity of a hard fought campaigner.  His story in '96 was truly inspiring...a schoolteacher criss-crossing the state in a white pickup, with maybe a tenth of the resources of his GOP opponent comes within 6% of a win.  However, he carpetbagged his way into this race by way of his parents, who live in Pleasanton in Atascosa County.  I think people saw that and if they weren't directly related to him, probably didn't think too much of him.  

I hope that helps..not that it's concrete answers or anything, but then again, we were going up against an incumbent with a rabidly loyal base.  That's a fight most often lost, no matter where it is.

by kineticdissent 2006-03-08 02:55PM | 0 recs
Good stuff

Thank you for a very informative post. Here's a little feedback:

Essentially, the district was forced to line up either behind Cuellar or behind Ciro.

Understood, but wasn't that the case in the last election? That's in the nature of a primary -- people pick sides. My question still is: What happened to the ~50% support that Rodriguez had in 2004 in the period before the netroots stepped in? If he was "walking dead" (as Kos put it) up until that point, that means a huge number of prior supporters either abandoned him for some external reason, or were not properly cultivated.

Also understood that Laredo was hugely behind their local guy... But it still seems to me that Rodriguez surely knew that going in, and in retrospect would appear to have had no (effective) strategy to undercut that massive base, or at least to offset it in some way.

I guess at the root of my post is a hunch (and it's just a hunch) that certain obvious problem areas may have been allowed to slide, or just not anticipated by the campaign.

Looking at future races, like Lamont v. Lieberman, it behooves all of us in the netroots to try to help the on-the-ground campaign fully assess and anticipate the particular challenges of that race, to avoid another money drain with no payoff.

by Hudson 2006-03-09 06:01AM | 0 recs


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