As it became clear in the wake of the 2012 state party conventions that a number of the contests would be forced to primary, party’s servers questioned the continued existence of party conventions at all. It wasn’t illogical. If the races still have to be settled by primary elections, what is the point of the expense and bother associated with assembling 4,000 partisans (about 2,000 per political party) if it doesn’t matter?
The results of last Tuesday’s primary however, point to a different conclusion. It is no accident that in three of the four highest-profile races of the day (each party’s US Senate primary and both 5th Congressional District primaries), the party-endorsed candidate (Murphy, McMahon, and Roraback) prevailed over their challengers. Only in the 5th Congressional Democratic primary did voters buck the party-endorsed Chris Donovan, whose campaign was marred by an influence-peddling scandal that was revealed after the endorsement.
The convention process forces candidates to do the hard work of courting their party’s stalwarts at Town Committee meetings, backyard picnics, and other hyper-local events. These party regulars get an opportunity to assess each candidate, ask them questions, and get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Their conclusions represent a powerful signal to their fellow Republicans or Democrats that the endorsed candidate is the best choice for their party.
But if the primary season suggests the continued power of the party endorsement, it also points to the power of paid media.
The candidacy of newcomer Dan Roberti was boosted by a savvy ad campaign that elevated his profile at the expense of Mr. Donovan, whose scandal-ridden candidacy was boiled down to a man in a cheap dark suit carrying a smoking briefcase. His inability to take the hits as well as he gave them, as was obvious in his final campaign ad which showed him apparently near tears, ultimately sunk his effort.
By contrast, former Congressman Chris Shays received the endorsement of every Connecticut newspaper that did so. Yet it amounted to nothing because he didn’t have enough money for television ads in the final weeks of the campaign.
It is an important lesson. Earned media is nice in the Information Age but what actually moves the needle are the four screens of modern communication: television, mobile phone, tablet, and personal computer. If your campaign isn’t using all four effectively, all the grassroots phone calls, mailers, and door knocks in the world won’t make a difference.
It is this same fact that makes the wailing and browbeating about the Citizens United decision misguided. Each citizen now has so much control over what he or she sees, reads, and hears that the only way to really reach them is to saturate every medium, including the grassroots work. In a world where the Linda McMahons and Ned Lamonts spend millions of their own money, the ability for a candidate’s supporters to raise counterweight funds from a small number of donors is the only thing that can actually level the playing field.
Americans across the country will become more acquainted with these powers in the coming weeks and months as a bevy of candidates, from Mitt Romney to Barack Obama, Chris Murphy, Linda McMahon, and many more seek their votes. Here is to hoping that the candidates find political profit in a substantive, issues-based campaign in the marketplace of ideas instead of the trashy and juvenile. In a country that apparently watches a toddler nicknamed Honey Boo Boo Child, I’m a little pessimistic.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com