In the last mayoral election, Antonio Villaraigosa garnered fifty-six percent of the vote in an election with a paltry fifteen-percent turnout. Many experts agree that his victory against a little known and poorly financed field was underwhelming and was indicative of simmering dissatisfaction with the state of the city.
I wish it were true.
The problem is the pool of likely voters – a group that is by and large predisposed to voting based on name recognition, partisan endorsements or as directed by union leaders. As long as challengers keep fighting for a share of the same pie, they are destined to lose.
It is possible that an alternative candidate, say Kevin James, could make the runoff against a field of elected officials who carve up their share of the pie into small pieces. James could easily earn about twenty to twenty-five percent of the vote in the primary, but the likelihood of carving a measurable segment of the other seventy-five percent in the runoff is slim.
No political consultant in the world working with existing likely voters is going to change the overall split by more than a few points no matter how much money is spent.
To have a chance for success, candidates like James have to break away from conventional strategies and recognize that political consultants can only take you so far. What is needed is a Madison Avenue type – not a Don Draper, although he would fit in the setting of a smoke-filled room, but someone with the savvy to reach new people.
The same skills necessary to sell consumer products, services and television programming could be the solution to tapping otherwise responsible citizens who lack the fire in their bellies to vote.
Think about what attracts people to watch a new TV show, especially one where the performers are relatively unknown. The hook is a provocative or compelling concept. Once the initial audience tunes in, it is up to the producers and writers to keep their attention. The plot alone cannot do that; the viewers have to identify with the characters.
Shows like Lost, Big Love, the Sopranos and Mad Men had characters, brilliantly portrayed, who breathed life into the plot and kept the audience.
Local politics needs to be marketed as if it were a new show.
In a city where even the incumbents are not well-known outside of the dedicated voters who comprise the usual suspects in our poor turnouts, you need an issue – a concept, so to speak – to pull people into the process. Once you identify the issue, then you can develop the characters – the politicians. The new voters can then decide who are the good guys versus the bad guys.
The entrenched politicians want the tried and true voter pool who respond like automatons. God forbid there should be voters who dwell on the issues and assess where each candidate stands on them.
But what are the issues that can attract another five to ten percent participation in local elections? Just as important, how do you convert the issues into an interesting saga?
I would like to think that the city’s financial crisis would be a draw, but unless it is conveyed with the same drama as a meltdown at a nuclear plant, it will be hard to develop traction. Most people have a tough enough time managing their own accounts to pay attention to possible municipal bankruptcy.
Whatever the issue, it must come across as a story. It’s worth noting that one of the most interesting accounts of the American Civil War was not written by a historian. Shelby Foote, whose three-volume series The Civil War, a Narrative is considered a landmark work, was a novelist. His prose added color to the subject and the conflict’s contemporaries without compromising authenticity.
I’m not suggesting something on the scale of a novel, but a source that is easy to access and offers compelling content.
Think of 60 Minutes and Nightline (the Ted Koppel years, that is). Locally, we have SoCal Connected on KCET, an excellent program that could use more publicity. All of these shows present the issues with a pace and style that can be riveting. What’s more, they can convert mundane subject matter into a plot that rivals any episode of Law and Order. We need more of this approach in the local media in concert with the internet.
Political consultants are not equipped to produce the ongoing story lines that attract regular interest. They are focused on individual missions – that of getting their clients elected, not expanding the base of knowledgeable voters.
Knowledge of local issues will foster involvement. Without it, the citizens can’t evaluate the candidates in the overall context and will not be motivated to vote for change.
Maybe a good starting place is through a grant from a research firm or a PAC, enough to fund the creation of programming designed to educate the public on local matters. As I mentioned earlier, SoCal Connected is an excellent program and could serve as a model.
Realistically, this would be a long-term project. The internet may have to serve as a platform for a few years, but every journey starts with a single step.