When I decided to run for California secretary of state earlier this year, I assumed that my experience as a political consultant would be of limited value to me in this new role. But I don’t think I understood how different life as a candidate would be from the years I’d spent advising others on how to run.
Campaign strategists tend to overcomplicate campaigns. It’s very exciting to sit around and theorize about some brilliant tactic or maneuver that’s going to turn the election. As a candidate, you realize it’s much less about strategic brilliance and more simply about persistence and doggedness. But back in the days when I was a consultant, it would have been pretty hard for me to charge a big fee just to tell my candidate to work harder.
One thing I learned quickly is how different it is to be the horse rather than the jockey. But there are other, broader lessons to be learned from my efforts as the first plausible nonpartisan statewide candidate in California history.
We knew from the beginning that it was going to be a very steep uphill fight. Our polling showed there were big advantages to being an Independent in a general election, but the primary was a lot more complicated. We knew it would take some time and effort to explain to voters why they should set aside their partisan voting habits. We simply underestimated the amount of time and money it would take to have that conversation.
The voters aren’t happy with the two parties, but they’ve become very accustomed to them. So when a low-information voter goes to the polls, seeing a D or an R after the candidate’s name provides a cue. By contrast, the initials NPP (No Party Preference) offer little or no guidance. As time passes, we’ll see voters becoming used to the broader range of options. But that wasn’t going to happen the first time they had that opportunity in a statewide campaign.
I told my team on Election Day that if the final results were 29 percent to 28 percent to 25 percent, there are all sorts of reasons for hand wringing and second-guessing. But with an outcome of this scope—I received 9 percent in the June 3 primary—the most important lesson to learn is simply the amount of time required to convince voters to break out of their partisan habits.
In retrospect, one change that might have made a difference would have required starting at least a year earlier. Some campaigns can happen at a sprint, but a few months turned out to not be enough time to introduce this new concept to voters. Starting in January 2013, rather than 2014, may have allowed us to have that conversation.
Underneath that broader lesson, though, was another takeaway. We may have tried to run too traditional a campaign for what was by definition an untraditional candidacy. For example, putting a higher priority on online and digital media at the expense of more traditional outreach could have helped us reach those disaffected voters in a way that old-fashioned mail and slate cards simply did not.
Our targeting was driven primarily by the rest of the field. The leading Democrat, state Sen. Alex Padilla, had a huge war chest—he spent nearly $2 million during the primary campaign—and he was one of four Democratic candidates on the ballot. In contrast, there were only two Republicans, who didn’t have much in the way of resources. Pete Peterson, the Republican who advanced to the general in the number two spot, ended up spending roughly $200,000.
So there appeared to be a greater opening to target GOP voters. Not because my message was a partisan one, but because it was less expensive and less competitive. Voters aren’t satisfied with what the two parties are offering, but they need a great deal of information and assurance before they’re willing to break out of those traditional voting habits. We simply didn’t have the time or the money to offer them that information or reassurance, so Republican voters stayed with the familiar brand.
I launched the campaign with a bipartisan consultant team, an approach that was critically important for a nonpartisan candidate. The two lead consultants were Rob Stutzman, who was former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) communications director, and Darry Sragow, who ran the state’s Democratic Assembly campaigns for many years. Both did a terrific job of developing a strategy for a campaign that was not only underfunded but had no precedent on which to rely for guidance.
On my best days as a candidate, I thought we might make history. On my worst days, I came to believe that we were making it much easier for the second Independent for statewide office to succeed.
My candidacy was the first step in a longer-term process. In the not-too-distant future, we’re going to see Independents elected to statewide office in California. But it’s going to take some more time to get voters accustomed to that option before they’re ready to make that choice. And I’m very happy to have helped lay the groundwork for that future success.
Dan Schnur, who served as communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and as the chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is the director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.