How the Game Has Changed

For years political mail and TV commercials have made up the bulk of campaign spending. But it’s clear that the same tired tactics are not working. Voters, turned off by the seemingly hate-filled missives that arrive in droves during campaigns, are simply tossing mail in the trash.

The mantra coming from fearful consultants is that candidates must send this type of mail, or else risk being buried by the opponent; television ads must also keep pace. The need to stay up with the Joneses has caused the majority of voters to reject politics altogether. The beneficiaries are those who have a vested interest in the outcome—they already vote and no amount of mail or television advertising will change their views.

In races that have more than one candidate and “down-ballot,” the need to stand out becomes even more pressing. Arithmetic shows that almost everyone loses in political campaigns. The mayor’s race is a good example: eight candidates ran but one could win. Another example: 14 lost souls failed to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown in June.

Legitimate candidates are weeded out by the media, based on qualifications and level of support in polling data, but just as—if not more—important is whether a candidate raises enough money to compete.

Top-level races receive the most scrutiny. While most of the money is spent on these contests, it’s the down-ballot races, where voting drops off, when money makes the biggest difference. For instance, billions were spent on the Presidential race in 2014. News coverage was extensive. But nothing changed from a polling perspective. President Obama won with the same polling figure he started with at the beginning of the contest.

Consultants might claim that President Obama would have lost had he not matched Mitt Romney in resources. But Meg Whitman spent over $165 million to become governor of California in 2010, and she lost to the frugal Brown. Voters actually rejected her spending as crass and unnecessary. So the big races aren’t really about money.

Television advertising, in particular, has become a huge turnoff. Again, many consultants will say that a candidate must compete on the same level of their opponent to win. But that doesn’t explain the Ed Gillespie-Mark Warner race in Virginia. Gillespie, behind in the polls, stopped his advertising. Warner stayed up, with most pundits agreeing he would win in a walk; he ended up barely limping over the finish line. Could it be that Gillespie actually won over voters by foregoing TV ads?

This brings us back to down ballot races. Resources do have an effect, as Gary Kremen’s water district victory showed. (Full disclosure: I worked on Kremen’s campaign.) He won, but it wasn’t just that he had resources. Kremen effectively spent money on things that matter. Yes, he did mail, but he also did voter identification, GOTV and worked very hard to convince voters on the issues.

It is never about how much a candidate spends, but how they spend that money. Kevin Jensen had the best sign campaign in the county last summer but still lost to Sheriff Laurie Smith (another client of mine). Signs have never been effective—but, again, they are necessary because of the Joneses mentality in politics.

Winning in politics is a simple formula, more arithmetic than art. You have to get more voters to the polls than your opponent. In a down-ballot race, this means defining an environment and making sure supporters vote, which can be much easier said than done. But candidates who target resources on things that matter will always have the advantage.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. Are the news so slow that San Jose Inside has to print free infomercials ?

    As a professional spinster, Rich Robinson fails to mention the influence of the disgusting “toilet” attack ad against Kremen’s opponent. Not a clean water race for sure….

    • I had to google it MV resident. Found a link..

      – NEC’s treasurer Gary Crummitt has 2 violations and 1 warning from the FPPC this year alone! see here: Web Link
      – in addition, NEC also paid 5,000 dollars to Barry Wyatt Associates
      – Barry Wyatt Associates was until recently (it’s still in Google’s cache) part of Robinson Communication’s team see here: Web Link
      – and guess who’s running Kremen’s water district campaign…. Rich Robinson
      – Ellen Kamei also used Robinson. She paid Robinson close to 18,000.00 (according to her campaign)for that awful mailer.
      – There is a NEC mailer supporting her regarding traffic and then she sends out that mailer about traffic that was created by essentially the same people.
      -Gary Kremen and Ellen Kamie share an office space and are having their election night party together.

      This is all making sense.

      WOW. This is bad.

      Maybe the expenditures are truly independent but what a series of coincidences…

      Yah, this kind of stuff always follows Rich. Rich you didn’t mention the sleaze tactics used to get Kremen elected. BTW one of your candidates told me they asked you specifically not to use The Mission City Loser on their campaign, which got me to thinking, they must think you two are connected.

      Less coincidence than appears.

  2. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

    — Winston Churchill

    My question is, did Churchill fully appreciate what people like Rich Robinson could do to democracy to make it worse, and slip behind anarchy or republicanism?

  3. Sounds like Rich is making an early pitch for the next election cycle to possible candidates who won’t have a big budget.. Hey, says Rich, I can get you elected on a shoestring budget. Hire me.

  4. Rich: The Obama campaignin 2012 didn’t ‘match’ the Romney campaign. It outspent Romney by a little bit. And won by a little bit. Go figure.

  5. Brian,

    Campaign Finance Reform has become an albatross with no uniformity and different rules for different people. The game of “gotcha” has replaced debates over differences and real issues. Further, no meaningful campaign reform can come about until Citizens United is repealed or constitutionally amended. Last, the Supreme Court has always allowed candidates to use their own personal resources in an unlimited fashion, so no new finance laws would have affected the race.

    Your point that people should support Gary Kremen when he is right and oppose him when they think he is wrong is noble and applies to all elected officials. The problem is that few people know what the water board does or their impact. To Kremen’s credit, he had to spend that much simply to inform people in a down-ballot race of his views. Admittedly few have the resources to do that and, more importantly, would utilize such sums because they were committed to riparian issues.

    Gary had that commitment. He could have run for any office, but he chose Water because he is passionate about the issue.

    BTW: It is my belief that the extra-curricular activity in the race actually hurt him at the ballot box. You were the beneficiary. That said, my views on IEs are well chroncled on this site.

    Finally, you ran a great campaign on limited resources. The fact you came so close is also reflective of the inattention the voters have on down-ballot races, for if money were the only factor Gary should have run by much more–but because you were an incumbant, that power in down-ballot races usually can’t be over-come, even with money.

    As I noted, Meg Whitman should be Governor if money were the only issue. That said, good luck in the future, you are quality person.


    • > Further, no meaningful campaign reform can come about until Citizens United is repealed or constitutionally amended.

      American politics is about “wealth” versus “tribalism”.

      “Democracy” tilts the playing field strongly in favor of tribalism.

      Protection of private property and private wealth was a fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution, and arguably, the basis of American exceptionalism.

      “Citizens United” levels the playing field for private wealth and private property and protects their political interests, as the Founders intended.

  6. Just because one has the right to do something doesn’t mean that he/she ought to do it. $534k for a water board seat is obscene.

  7. Funny how Rich conveniently forgets his own contributions to the nastiness not just in the Kremen campaign but also in the SCUSD school board races. Maybe he’s just hoping other campaigns won’t use his last-minute smear mailer tactic against his clients.

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