Viewpoints: Election turnout low because campaigns don’t respect voters

Much has been written to explain the dismal turnout in June’s primary: the irrelevance of politics today; any understanding of why down-ballot candidates matter and their lack of money to tell voters why; Gov. Jerry Brown’s expected blowout; the lack of minority voters’ interest in off-year elections; and even the new top-two primary system.

I have a very different take. I think the dismal turnout can be traced to politicians and their campaigns’ lack of respect for what voters want – and what they deserve.

I’ve been in this business nearly half a century. I learned from giants: the Burton brothers, Alan Cranston, Willie Brown, Dick Woodward. Each of them had the same advice: If you want voters to vote for you, meet them, talk to them and ask them.

Voters are smart. They want to understand what you will do for them and why it matters. Those practitioners who invented modern grass-roots campaigning – knocking on doors, making calls, contacting and re-contacting voters – knew that to win, they had to connect the candidates who wanted to be elected with the people who would elect them. Their campaigns consisted not only of paid advertising in the major markets, but appearances at Rotary Clubs, bingo parlors, VFWs and central committee meetings from Yreka to Palmdale.

My guess: This June, very few, if any, statewide candidates went anywhere outside the major markets where they raised money – and hoped for a short TV sound bite. In fact, when one candidate – think Republican/tea party – started to meet voters and get traction with his quixotic visits to talk shows, gun shops and people-heavy venues, his party panicked.

When Alan Cranston ran for re-election, even with little opposition, he spent days on the road. He defined Northern California as Bakersfield to the Oregon border and every county in between – and he visited them all. We would start out at a Lions Club breakfast in Bakersfield, stop at a school in Earlimart, have lunch in Visalia, stop at farms along Highway 99, and end in Sacramento for a TV interview and barbecue. Most of these events were free. Trips were not about the money, they were an opportunity for a U.S. senator to meet the people he represented, listen to them and ask for their vote. In this past election, did any statewide candidate, besides Jerry Brown, get to Redding or Gridley or even Salinas?

I reject the argument that statewide grass-roots campaigning is impossible today. It’s not. In fact, it’s how we winnow down presidential contenders. But closer to home, consider San Luis Obispo County. Its 40 percent turnout this June is a simple proof point. Sure, San Luis Obispo had two very hotly contested local races, for district attorney and county supervisor, but so did other counties, and their turnouts weren’t that high. The difference? Old-fashioned, political grass-roots organizing and a voter contact plan that was up-close and personal.

In the district attorney’s race, 23 deputy DAs spent months walking and knocking doors for their underdog candidate. When absentee ballots arrived, they switched to the phones to personally call every voter who had voted five times in the last five elections. Both county supervisor candidates walked their districts. My daughter is one of the DAs who walked and talked, so I spent a lot of time monitoring the scores of old-fashioned coffee klatches, Rotary Club debates and local parades where the candidates never missed a step.

Not possible in a statewide race you say? Pish. The summer is long, the news cycle is slow, California’s roads are still pretty good and cellphones make travel for retail politics very doable. If you respect voters enough to try it, it will pay off.

One of my current clients has been conducting focus groups among “occasional” voters, including voters of color – the very same voters who stayed home in June. The results support this analysis: These voters say, “I just want someone to talk and listen to me. I want to meet them, connect with them. I want them to know what’s important to me, make their case and let me make up my mind.” Burton, Willie Brown, Cranston and Woodward would not have been surprised.

Sure, some candidates stuffed mailboxes, a few were on television, and some bought the only piece of direct mail that goes to every voter: the secretary of state’s ballot pamphlet. A few paid for robocalls, and some bought those ever-personal and effective slates. But how many candidates went to the people, even a few times for a few hours, when they weren’t asking for money?

The biggest lesson here: Voters are smart. And if you want them to elect you, respect them enough to ask for their vote. They will turn out.