I have participated in Minnesota Democratic Party (officially known as the DFL1) activities in the past, but never as intimately as this year. In doing so, I’ve observed a number of very interesting things about how a political campaign works, and I’d like to share those observations with you. In particular, I’ll contrast the campaign I’m volunteering for whenever I have a chance (Sharon Sund for US Congress) with the opposing campaign (Brian Barnes for US Congress).
The Sund-Barnes campaign is not over, and we don’t yet know how it will turn out. At this point, the campaigns are about evenly matched in terms of “declared delegates” (as far as I can tell) but there are some very important differences between the campaigns that I believe will result in a Sund nomination. But what is all this about “delegates” and “nominations” and stuff? If you are not a political activist in Minnesota, it is very unlikely that you know how our system works, because it is the most arcane and byzantine system of doing anything that ever existed anywhere. In Byzantium, when things got complex, they would say “What are we? Minnesotan DFLers?” It is so complex that reporters do not bother reporting it. People fault our system for its complexity and its inside-player preference but one has to admit this fact: When it comes to a general election, Minnesota usually has the highest voter turnout of any state in the Union. Also, we tend to send some amazing people to Washington. So, do take that into consideration before suggesting that we dismantle our time honored chaos.
Here’s how it works. While every other state has a “primary” or a “caucus” at which various candidates are voted on by each party to see who will run (you’ve been hearing all about the Republican primaries this year) Minnesota only pretends to do this early on in the process. What really happens is that we have a non-binding irrelevant “primary” vote on the US President, because people are expecting that, but we ignore the results. Meanwhile we elect “delegates” who are people who hung around the polling place longer than just to vote in the fake non-binding primary, to discuss issues. We also make a preliminary list of “resolutions” at that event. This is done at the “precinct” level. A precinct is like a neighborhood.
Starting a few weeks later, we have a “caucus” in each “State Senate District” at which we chose a subset of those delegates previously chosen. At this point I should say something about how we chose delegates. There are three known methods plus a Plan B.
Method 1: Somebody says “I’ll do it” and then they are a delegate.
Method 2: People nominate themselves then everyone else in the room votes on them.
Method 3: The walking sub-caucus. I’m not going to even begin to explain how this works, and I can’t even think of a good metaphor. This is what it looks like:
Plan B: A coin is flipped or something is drawn from a “hat” … this is done for only a small number of delegates when there are “remainders.” Never mind what a “remainder” is.
The Senate District meetings are mostly about other stuff. I’m pretty sure that there are 64 Minnesota senate districts. Each one has about 15 or so internally elected operatives who are mostly volunteers. Executive committees, a treasurer, chairs, etc. etc. Plus there are county level people and state level people. I’d estimate that overall there are about 1,200 people who have (mainly volunteer) positions in the Minnesota DFL and one of the main tasks at these Senate District conventions is to work out who those people are, and to refine the rules by which they operate. And what they do, mainly, is to decide on and implement the rules that have been so refined, which mostly pertain to selecting or electing them. I think. They probably do other stuff too, but I’m not sure.
At the end of this long meeting, and at certain points during the meeting, the actual “caucus” happens in which delegates pick nominees to run for office. At each Senate District there is, obviously, one State Senator nominated to run in the general election. There are multiple house members. Plus, all the other elected officials for the state and county and stuff. Then, there are the federal offices such as President, Senator (if there is an election in the given year) and every two years, US House.
The US House districts are larger than State Senate Districts, so a given state senate district might be entirely within a house district. Or, it might overlap he borders of two. Or, as in the case of the district I had the honor of being the “floor leader” at last Saturday, three. That State Senate District overlapped with the Minnesota 5th (Ellison), 6th (Bachmann) and mine, the 3rd (Currently held buy Erik Paulsen, but not for long!). Ultimately, a certain number of delegates committed to various candidates (seeking the nominations) and/or issues, or uncommitted if they like, is chosen.
That is the short, simplified version of what happens. Each of the 64 Senate Districts has a 5 to 7 hour long convention. They happen over several weeks. In my Congressional district, most happened at once yesterday on a sort of “Super Saturday” and there is one more to do next weekend.
So, from the point of view of a campaign such as Sharon Sund’s campaign for Congress, we have to do this:
We show up. We put up a table for literature and to sit at to answer questions. We put up posters. We talk to delegates as they come into the building, and during their breaks. We try to strategize with supportive delegates to get their support in the Walking Sub-Caucus (which, again, I will not attempt to explain). We try to find out what delegates are interested in, what issues concern them. We try to persuade them to support our candidate. If possible, and it often is possible, we try to link up the candidate with delegates who want to speak to her in person.
This follows days or weeks of phone and door to door contact with delegates, as well as house parties and such, and is followed again by more of the same…
…until the Congressional District Convention happens at which time the congressional candidate is nominated. Well not really nominated; endorsed. If a candidate wishes to run unendorsed they can do that legally. But we hope they don’t most of the time.
So now you get the picture, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The truth is that for many elected offices, delegates are mostly interested in one thing, or at least, they have one issue as a key priority for them when they select their candidate: Is the campaign well organized and effective? The truth is that at most levels one DFL candidate will not differ that much in terms of issues from another, so you really want to go for the candidate who can win in November against the Republican, and an important factor in this is considered to be how well the campaign organization is organized and funded.
There are in fact important differences among candidates, and delegates pay attention to this. For instance, one of the candidates running for the nomination in Michel Bachmann’s district is running on the idea that only an anti-choice candidate can win in a strongly Republican district. She has this idea because an anti abortion candidate trounced Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania a while back. She’s wrong, of course, and DFLers will not appreciate that strategy and she has no chance of getting the nomination.
What about Sund vs. Barnes, the race I’m working on? There are some real differences. Barnes refused to say that he would vote for Obama’s Job bill, while Sund has supported it. Sund has experience in health care related activism, and in fact is one of the people responsible for Obamacare having passed. (Sund also supported the public option, an important issue for Union members, though it did not make it in the final bill.) Sund went to college on Union Money, comes from a Union household, but IIRC, Barnes is a manager in a shop that builds stuff (which is good, Made in the USA and all that) which is not union. Or at least, I can’t find anyone to tell me that it is, which strongly suggests it isn’t. Barnes says that the Deficit is the number on issue facing us at the moment, while Sund recognizes that the top issues are a combination of Jobs Jobs Jobs and science-related issues like the looming energy crisis. Sharon Sund not only wants to push for Green Jobs, but has also worked in the Green Energy industry, while Barnes seems to have added “green energy” to his resume after the fact, claiming that being a manager/salesperson at a company that makes big-giant gasoline engines for use in cranes and commercial or industrial boats and conveyor belts and such gives him green energy cred.
So, issues wise, there are differences that matter to delegates. Labor should support and prefer Sharon Sund, and middle classers who want to break out of their jobs and start businesses should prefer Sund’s health care insurance policies (which would allow this more easily). And so on.
But it is also the campaign’s organizational abilities that matter, and this is where I’ve also seen some large differences. I’ve been to five or six events: a debate and four convention-caucus thingies. the initial primary, a house party or two, etc. At the debate, two or three of us Sharon Sund volunteers showed up early and plastered the place with Sund signs while one guy from Barnes put up a few signs. But then, the people who ran the City Hall we were in explained that the first amendment doesn’t really apply in their little town and both campaigns had to take all the signs down. So, that was a wash for both sides. Barnes had a lot of young kids, mostly too young to vote (from some high school he had a link to as a substitute teacher, I suspect) holding the doors and wearing their T-shirts out front. We had fewer people holding doors but we were all adults and more of Sund’s people were professional staffers. I love the fact that these high school kids were so involved, and I give full credit to Barnes for making that happen. In the end, the organizational display at the debate was a wash.
Later I went to our third caucus. Here, Barnes’ people showed up three hours late, and the first ones to show up were fairly upset because they had the schedule all wrong, so any delegates coming into the building would see a small number of Barnes people making hurried desperate phone calls and a large number of Sund people greeting them, telling them about our candidate, showing them where to go in a somewhat complicated school layout, cool, collected, confident, numerous, and all this in front of a background of a zillion Blue and White “Sharon Sund” signs and about three Barnes signs poorly placed.
We won on the signs, we won on our presence, we won in all sorts of ways.
At another caucus, Barnes’ people had the candidate off to one side, almost sequestered like they were plotting something, dour faced (except Barnes himself, who does maintain a pleasant countenance, highly practices from his sales and management career and quite well done). So the occasional delegate would be picked off the stream of arrivals to speak with Barnes. Meanwhile, we used the Happy Funnel formation to meet, greet, and guide delegates over to Sharon who was centrally placed and engaged in one pleasant conversation after another, with virtually every delegate who came in the building.
This sort of thing happened at a number of locations. By the time we got to my caucus … not the one I vote in but the one I was “floor managing” for … I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had my gear and my table in the car and arrived early (we usually don’t’ have to bring a table, but on this location we were informed well in advance to do so). I plastered the Union Hall with Sund posters, and had time to cheerfully help the Convention Chair and staff to put up their maps and other stuff and move their tables around. I set up our table. I started greeting the early arriving delegates. Meanwhile, a couple of Barnes people showed up but guess what? NO TABLE! I had to kinda laugh inside at that one. So, delegates arriving there found Happy and Informative Sund Volunteers and some disgruntled Barnes volunteers on their cell phones trying to find a person with a table somewhere nearby. They did eventually get a table, but hours late and it didn’t help.
After mopping that particular floor, I went over to my own Senate District to help out where I could. Things were already underway. I noticed right away, mistakenly, that Barnes did not have a table there either, and the Sund Table was well positioned and well staffed. Also, we had Sund posters everywhere, and there were hardly any Barnes posters. Also, the Barnes posters were small and not as nice.
Then, eventually, I did notice the Barnes table. It was right in front of me all the time; I just thought it was some litter left behind by someone. The contrast between the two was so stark, I felt moved to make a documentary about it. Now, I warn you, I’m not Ken Burns, but I think the final product is still instructive. Here it is, my tutorial on “How to make an effective campaign table at a campaign event. Or not”:
When I first started working on this campaign, I heard somewhere that “Barnes has the better organization.” But I quickly learned that this was a technique, that may actually work for a short while: If you don’t actually have a well tuned and effective organization, just tell people that you do, and they’ll believe it. The thing is, while that might work for a day or two, eventually, truth will out, and in fact, people who were told one thing but who see another thing demonstrated to be real may rather resent being thought of as gullible. I know I would. It turns out that “Sund has the better organization.” Spread that around, you’ll be telling the truth.
The Sund Campaign actually beat Barnes in his home district, and is overall making a very positive impression. Key party people who often sit out the first part of this process are showing more than a little movement towards Sund, as far as I can tell. We will be going into the Congressional District Convention able to win and ready for a fight.
Then, the real campaign season starts, when Sharon Sund and her Excellent Campaign take on Erik Paulsen. I would not want to be Erik Paulsen. Because this campaign is a machine, and it will roll right over him.
1DFL = Democratic Farm Labor