All politics is local? You must be kidding.
The higher up you go in American national politics, the less local politics becomes, and the more prominent and the more corrosive big money becomes. The gathering of money and the rounding up of voters have become a national project executed on local stages. Money’s the coin of the realm, imported and exported on a national basis.
When it comes to money, there’s an enormous difference in scale between local and national. While somewhere in New York State a benighted employee of a town clerk is failing to provide his or her customers a receipt and investing the money instead in a personal ticket to the state lottery, a political appointee in a high regulatory position in Washington is discussing with a well-compensated industry lobbyist how the language of a billion-dollar government contract ought to read.
“If you don’t come in the door with your pockets full, your only other way, regardless of policy or background, is to prove that you can bring in ass-loads of outside cash,” reporter Matt Taibbi wrote in the third episode of his rollicking four-part series in Rolling Stone on the seven-way Democratic primary eventually won by Antonio Delgado. He quoted another of the magnificent seven, Woodstock attorney Dave Clegg, “That’s what they tell you — that you need money to win, that it’s all about the money.”
That’s not always how it used to be. A congressional district where a decade ago less than a million dollars was being spent every two years is this year facing $20 million and probably more in political spending on the general election.
Alderman Douglas Koop is an elected official who represents the City of Kingston’s Second Ward. He’s chair of the Finance and Audit Committee.
How much money did he raise for his election campaign last year?
“Twenty-five dollars,” replied the Democratic alderman cheerfully. “My brother sent it to me because he thought I should have some campaign money.”
Koop’s near-empty war chest presents a vivid contrast to the recent campaign in which seven Democratic candidates spent about ten million dollars contesting the local congressional primary on June 26 (the final numbers aren’t in yet). Around 36,000 voters tuned out. Assuming a $10-million base, the candidates spent $278 for each primary vote cast.
Sorry, that’s ridiculous. Next time, just send all the people diligent enough to vote a check. I guarantee that’ll improve turnout next time around.
On November 6, the registered voters of the 19th Congressional District will choose between incumbent Republican John Faso and Democratic challenger Delgado in one of the most competitive races in the country. Some $3.8 billion was spent in the 2014 midterm federal election for U.S. House and Senate races, which breaks down to an average of about $8.3 million in spending per race, with much, much more in a score or so of competitive House districts like New York 19. Senate contests require more money than House races, unopposed or uncompetitive contests much less money than competitive ones.
In the most heavily contested House districts, a few votes could decide whether a House seat will be flipped. Expect huge amounts of money from both sides of the aisle to flow in from political action committees outside the district in the next four months.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has already made two trips to Kingston to tout his $10-million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant to the city. Such largesse. Chump change.
That sum, which will take years to dribble in to Kingston, will be less than the amount that will be spent in Ulster County in the next 120 days on the November congressional election.
It’s a sweltering early Saturday afternoon in Kingston, and about 20 people at an open house held by the Progressive Turnout Project are chatting in the Howard C. St. John Memorial Garden on John Street. PTP, a national political action committee, has said it will spend $250,000 to turn out the Democratic vote in the congressional district of which Kingston is the most populous city. PTP operates out of two district offices in New York 19, one consisting of two small rooms in the historic Franz Roggen stone house next to the St. John garden and the other in Oneonta.
PTP’s single purpose is to get out the Democratic vote. It has zeroed in on 18 very competitive congressional districts across the nation. Zoe Harter-Saunders, a 2016 graduate of SUNY Geneseo, is the PTP district director in New York 19. A get-together afterwards of about half the people from the open house inside one of the rooms showcased staff knowledge of the congressional district they were trying to flip. What they knew was limited, but they didn’t lack determination.
PTP calls Democrats who vote in presidential years but not in off-year congressional elections “inconsistent voters.” The Pew Research Center calls them “drop-off voters.”
There are three steps to the PTP playbook called Canvassing 101.
The first consists of training the field staff how to engage with voters and how to deal with objections. The staff is canvassing, not soliciting. “We’ve been conducting a community study. We’re not here to convince you of anything,” the dropoff voter is told. Keep eye contact. Smile. Display positive body language, provide data, employ presumptive language.
The second is door-knocking. Canvassing door-to-door increases turnout by eight percent. ”Knock firmly, clearly, and try twice. Look and listen for clues that someone is home.” Listen to voters you talk to and earn their trust. Don’t read right from the script.
The final step is to create a sense of community around the act of voting. Secure a commitment to vote and “assist voters to making a vote plan.” “Can we count on you to vote in the upcoming election by signing this commit-to-vote card today?” What’s the best number to reach you close to Election Day? There’ll be two post-card reminders.
“The 2018 midterm elections will be determined in large part by who goes to the polls and who stays home,” says the Pew Research Center. In the last off-year, 2014, turnout hit a 70-year low.
Just half of the people who didn’t turn out for a congressional election said they’d ever been personally contacted to vote for a candidate, according to Pew. The other half said they hadn’t. Among the voters in the presidential years of 2012 and 2016 who didn’t vote in 2014, 40 percent identified themselves as Republican or leaning Republican and 58 percent as Democratic or leaning Democratic.
In presidential years, participation in most congressional races has been between 50 percent and 60 percent of eligible voters. In non-presidential years, turnout normally ranges between 35 percent and 45 percent. In 2014, about 45 percent of district voters turned out locally to vote in Republican Chris Gibson’s easy win over Sean Eldridge.
In 2016 John Faso beat Zephyr Teachout by 27,000 votes. Since then Democratic enrollment gained on Republican enrollment by about 8000. Let’s assume further that, as congressman Faso assures us is true, there’ll be neither a blue wave nor a red tsunami this November, meaning that the present active electorate will vote in 2018 as it did in 2016. That’s a big assumption, but let’s accept it conditionally.
Necessary for the PTP scenario to be successful and for Antonio Delgado to beat John Faso under these assumptions will be a Democratic participation drive that gets 19,000 Democratic dropoffs into the voting booth on November 6.
Jack St. John, legendary in Ulster County Republican circles for decades as a politician, banker, district attorney and financier, would have enjoyed the enthusiasm of the Democratic open house in his memorial garden. “The Saint” loved history. He would have been amused by a rent-paying tenant of a political persuasion very different than his own using his garden to mobilize against an establishment candidate.
A quarter of a million dollars in a local congressional campaign used to be a lot of money. It isn’t any more. PTP’s investment in the 19th New York Congressional District will constitute between one and two percent of the campaign money spent in the next 120 days. One or two cents of every dollar spent. How far can that kind of money, a measly quarter of a million bucks, carry the PTP campaign?
Reporter Matt Taibbi didn’t disguise his support for the primary race of Jeff Beals, the Woodstock Day School history teacher who came in tied for fourth in the seven-person Democratic field. “To win without financial backing is a difficult thing,” wrote Taibbi in the final installment of his New York 19 series. “It’s also not easy to win while openly inviting the scorn of the national bureaucracy, by talking about issues like the influence of corporate money on the party.”