Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s campaigns get trickier

Baldemar Garcia, left, and Carol Hendrickson inspect “write in’s” on vote by mail ballots at the Sacramento County Voter Registration and Election office in Sacramento on Monday, November 1, 2010.
Baldemar Garcia, left, and Carol Hendrickson inspect “write in’s” on vote by mail ballots at the Sacramento County Voter Registration and Election office in Sacramento on Monday, November 1, 2010. rpench@sacbee.com

California has a well-deserved reputation for innovation in many human endeavors.

From building freeways to building satellites, from making movies to making wine, from digital technology to biotechnology – Californians have led.

That penchant for innovation has extended even to the techniques of political campaigning.

Political messages that California movie producers inserted into their trailers in the 1930s were precursors to television spots that later revolutionized campaigning.

Targeted mail appeals for money and votes were developed in the 1970s as crude voter databases emerged, leading to the now-common tsunamis of mailers.

One California political machine mailed potholders with printed messages, reasoning that they were less likely to be discarded. Another experimented with hand-delivering video tapes to homes in targeted neighborhoods.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media have become pervasive in more recent elections.

Those who are handsomely paid to devise campaign strategies in California must continue to invent new techniques not only to outflank rivals but to cope with rapidly evolving dynamics of elections themselves.

As panelists in a post-election conference sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies noted, four seemingly immutable trends are complicating tactics of political persuasion.

One is the steady drop in voter turnout. Only a quarter of registered voters cast ballots in last year’s June primary and fewer than 40 percent voted in the Nov. 4 general election.

Falling turnout makes mass media appeals, such as TV ads, less effective, compounded by the proliferation of dozens of specialized cable channels. It challenges campaign managers to identify the relative few who do vote and devise ways to target them.

Meanwhile, ever-larger numbers of ballots are cast by mail, transforming “election day” into “election month” and devaluing once-potent last-minute barrages.

Once a ballot goes into the mail, it shuts the door on further appeals. And Internet voting may be next.

Furthermore, rates of voting and voting by mail vary widely among ethnic, generational, geographic and economic subgroups, so a technique that might work with one won’t necessarily reach another.

The third factor is the top-two primary, in which the top vote-getters face off in a November runoff, regardless of party, complicating voter outreach and messaging.

Finally, a long-term erosion of major-party registration is swelling the ranks of decline-to-state voters and making appeals to party loyalty less effective.

The trends that make California campaigning ever more problematic are spreading across the country, and the tactical successes and failures here will, as they have in the past, influence national politics.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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