Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the streets of New York in her campaign video, Courage to Change.
Jan. 2, 2020 by David Silverberg
The story is told that Napoleon Bonaparte, when asked which historical generals he most admired, responded: “The ones that won.”
As it is with generals, so it is with political candidates. All the ideals in the world don’t make a difference if you don’t win your election.
It’s no secret for Democrats in Southwest Florida that the odds of winning an election are long. But there are candidates who faced similar odds in other circumstances and overcame them. What did they do right and what lessons can Southwest Floridians learn from them?
This article, the first in a series, will examine some of the mechanics of campaigning. In this one, we’ll look at elements of the ground game, the getting from A to B, or as one person called it, “the hustle.”
Pound the pavement, knock on doors
Perhaps no one is a better embodiment of the successful, come-from-nowhere insurgent than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY), now nearly universally referred to as AOC. On June 26, 2018, the 28-year-old Boston University graduate and sometime bartender defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and the fourth-most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives in the Democratic primary.
AOC campaigned early, often and relentlessly—and her supporters did the same.
“In a year of campaigning, Ocasio-Cortez and her volunteers made a hundred and seventy thousand phone calls, knocked on a hundred and twenty thousand doors, and sent a hundred and twenty thousand text messages,” wrote David Remnick in a New Yorker profile. “Ocasio-Cortez spent the last week of the campaign going door to door, hoofing it to the end.”
AOC stops to change shoes as depicted in her campaign video.
“Look, it’s a credit to her. She did a very good job of organizing and in generating a turnout spike among younger voters,” an unnamed political expert told reporter Grace Segers of CityandStateNY.com.
“Something I can’t emphasize enough: There is no replacement for strong volunteer canvass. $3 million dollars is not a replacement for volunteer canvass. If you’re wondering what you can do to change the political situation right now, the answer is ‘volunteer canvass,’” analyst Michael Kinnucan wrote in Jacobinmag.com. “Ocasio-Cortez — a brilliant candidate at the right moment — brought in a whole mess of volunteers from all over the place, from other organizations as well as off the street.”
The same went for volunteers for Doug Jones, the insurgent Democrat who in 2017 defeated Republican Roy Moore for the US Senate seat in Alabama.
Doug Jones celebrates his 2017 senatorial victory in Alabama.
“Roy Moore had no ground game,” Rebecca Rothman, a Doug Jones organizer told Collier County Democrats during a visit to Party headquarters in December 2017. “They were so confident of winning that they didn’t put out any lawn signs or go door-to-door.” In contrast, Jones supporters vigorously went door-to-door, canvassing neighborhoods. The visits were critical even in areas that were regarded as safely Democratic because they helped turn out the vote there.
Closer to home and on a state level, the 2018 special election victory of Margaret Good in State District 72 in Sarasota was also the result of activist mobilization and grassroots, door-knocking efforts.
Good was running in a majority Republican district very similar to those in Lee and Collier counties but overcame her numerical disadvantage with a strong field operation.
“Very early we made a conscious decision to invest in the field organization,” Reggie Cardoza, the director of political operations for Democrats in the Florida House, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “The most effective and efficient way to reach a voter is face to face.”
That kind of campaigning not only introduces the candidate to voters, it expands the electorate; people who may never have voted before can be inspired to go to the polls for the first time.
Margaret Good is now running for Congress in the 16th Congressional District against Republican incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan.
In Southwest Florida, where Democratic candidates have to find new voters in order to win, face-to-face campaigning can start to make the necessary difference—and nowhere is it more important and more effective than when it’s done by the candidate in person.
Keeping tech in its place
Digital technology is seductive. It’s a great ego boost for a candidate or campaign to put up Facebook posts and see the yellow line of page visitors rise and count the numbers of “engagements”—actions taken by visitors—and to believe that this constitutes real progress in convincing voters.
It does constitute progress—but without face-to-face, on the ground introductions and follow-up, it also means nothing.
Before going further, let’s ask a crucial question: What do we mean when we refer to “technology?” Marshall McLuhan, the famous thinker and author of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, wrote that technology is an extension of a human capability by artificial means. In this instance, think of a loudspeaker or amplifier broadcasting or amplifying the sound of a person’s voice.
All recent successful campaigns have used technology, chiefly digital media, in new and creative ways to broaden their messages. Savvy politicians have always realized that new technologies extend their ability to reach voters. What newspapers and telegraphs did for Abraham Lincoln and radio did for Franklin Roosevelt, so Twitter did for Donald Trump—and for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
If Donald Trump uses digital media, especially Twitter, as a weapon, he uses it like a madman waving a club, swinging it insanely in all directions and battering anything and everything around him. AOC uses digital media like a dagger, thrusting it at a focused target and driving it home with the greatest impact.
In addition to her 2018 campaign’s 120,000 text messages and her massive Twitter use, AOC’s campaign produced a moving, beautifully crafted 2-minute video called “The Courage to Change.” It effectively introduced AOC, her platform, the issues and called for action. It cost less than $10,000 to make and it was durable; no matter what was happening in the news, it served over the long term of the campaign. It was never broadcast by local television stations or used in paid advertising but while it was only distributed digitally, it went viral and has had over a million views—and keeps being accessed to this day.
Unfortunately, in Southwest Florida, there is no reliable, publicly-available data on people’s media habits, so it’s very hard for a campaign to determine which platforms people use most and trust. As a result, campaigns can’t focus their messages accordingly.
However, it seems safe to say that given Lee and Collier counties’ high proportion of older people, traditional media (television and print newspapers) and more established social media (Facebook, perhaps Twitter) are probably their leading information sources, as opposed to newer applications like Instagram or Tik-Tok.
In Southwest Florida, Democratic candidates cannot rely on established mainstream media to do its traditional, constitutional job of objectively and comprehensively covering politics and government. Politics is a very low priority for local media and Democratic and progressive activity is usually overlooked, ignored or dismissed (hence the reason for The Paradise Progressive).
As a result, any Democratic campaign in Southwest Florida has to build its own media machine and aggressively push out its message. Fortunately, digital media provides a low-cost means of doing that. (Ironically, various digital platforms’ crackdown on false and misleading political messages also means cutting off a channel for low-financed, insurgent political campaigns.)
But media can only do so much. For those voters—and most importantly, new and potential voters who might not subscribe to digital media channels, nothing can take the place of a knock on the door, a friendly greeting and a handshake, or what’s known in campaign slang as “pressing the flesh.”
There is simply no substitute for committed, energetic, continuous, face-to-face campaigning, especially in person by the candidate.
Pressing the flesh—effectively
Former President Bill Clinton addresses a crowd in Immokalee, Nov. 1, 2016. (Photo: author)
Former Democratic President Bill Clinton is the ultimate “people person.” Those who have met him have commented on his uncanny concentration on the person he’s with, making that person feel like he or she is the most important person in the universe—indeed, the only person in the universe.
Clinton’s people skills were on display on Nov. 1, 2016 in Collier County when he visited Immokalee on a campaign swing for his wife Hillary.
Although it was a small gathering for a man who has addressed massive crowds, Clinton nonetheless treated the audience with the same respect he would show a national convention. He was articulate and intelligent, addressing people as peers. He was unfazed by brief heckling and argued convincingly when challenged, showing full command of facts and figures.
But it was actually after he finished speaking that the complete Clinton treatment was on full display. Clinton just loved being there. An observer could see and feel it. Clinton gave the impression that there was nothing in the world he would rather be doing than shaking hands and posing for selfies with voters in the heat of Immokalee. His enjoyment seemed to just wash over the crowd and radiate outward. These were the people he most wanted to meet and the crowd reciprocated his pleasure. He would have stayed for hours if his entourage hadn’t pulled him away.
Clinton’s famous empathy and focus won him his elections in Arkansas and took him to the White House. It marks him as one of the most effective politicians in American history. And speaking clinically, it’s a key to making personal appearances effective with voters.
It’s also something AOC has, according to Michael Kinnucan: “If you’ve ever been in a room with Ocasio-Cortez, you know what I mean. She has the thing. You don’t need the thing, lots of sitting politicians don’t have it, but when you find it —it’s something else.”
It’s best if a candidate has “the thing” in her or his bones but it can be developed.
“The digital age has turned many of us into multitaskers who are constantly on the lookout for our next dopamine burst of novelty,” according to Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. Clinton, on the other hand, “has the ability to connect with an audience and then turn around and make the person who was helping with the slideshow feel like they’re the most important person there.”
In the 2014 article “How to Communicate like Bill Clinton” in the magazine Fast Company, Tumlin provided tips on making effective personal appearances. (They are: unplug from technology; seek out conversations; adopt “we-based” communication forms; empathize; and practice.) They’re lessons Southwest Florida Democratic candidates need to learn.
A winning candidate here should enjoy meeting people, being with them, listening to them and winning them over. It’s best if this is instinctive behavior but if it’s not, it can be learned. By the same token, a candidate who is detached, remote, aloof, dismissive or passive will definitely not succeed.
So in-person campaigning, technological savvy and empathy are some of the tactics that will help Democrats win in Southwest Florida. But all of this is nothing without sheer hard work, the willingness and drive to get up every morning and do what needs to be done, to campaign at every moment and opportunity, to inherently want to win over voters.
AOC put this very well after her victory. Her stunning upset had pundits pointing to every possible factor to explain her success, a major one of which was the change in her district from majority white to majority Latino.
But AOC was having none of it. She knew how much work she and her campaign had put into the effort. On June 29, 2018 she tweeted out her reply:
“Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons.
“1st of all, that’s false. We won w/voters of all kinds.
“2nd, here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.
“Respect the hustle. We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period.”
Pound the pavement; expend the shoe leather; respect the hustle: that willingness to work is the key ingredient if Democrats are ever to win in Southwest Florida.
Liberty lives in light
©2020 by David Silverberg