Why machine politics wins election campaigns

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
July 22, 2017 - 7:25am
Image Credit: Chad Harris/CFJC Today

KAMLOOPS — The by-election for mayor got more interesting Friday, but the outcome more predictable.

Dr. Cindy Ross Friedman, one of the declared mayoralty candidates, sent around a media release late in the day.

Or was it a guest column, or a letter to the editor or, as she put it, “whatever you want…. I am atypical.”

This is true. And she intends to run what she regards as an atypical campaign. Unfortunately, it’s not as atypical as she might think.

According to her press release — or whatever — she is not a campaigner and doesn’t know how to play the game. “I don’t have ‘messages boxes’ or garish lawn signs or want to stand on the side of the road distracting drivers by waving like I am one of those balloon people.”

She asks, “Does having a ‘machine’ behind me mean I am able to elicit change and grow the economy beyond the region? Well… you ponder that one.”

According to Ross-Friedman, she’s a listener who can act decisively. She’d rather talk about taxes than cultivating her image.

“Can I sell myself, my vision, this City, this potential?” she asks rhetorically, then answers, “Doubtless,” but adds, “Can I do it by following the prescription for campaigning? No. I can lead by listening, not by kissing your babies.”

This listening and acting thing makes for a good argument. One can’t help but admire her intentions. But first, people have to know who you are, and second, why you want to be mayor.

You need a machine. You need — as much as some people dislike them — lawn signs, brochures and advertising, bought and paid for.

Door knocking? Highly effective, essential even, and with a well-organized campaign, an effective committee and lots of volunteers (all typical of traditional electioneering) you can do more of it.

“Listen, then act” might make a good campaign slogan, but you need something to put it on.

Going green, campaigning on the cheap and winning election with your charm and smarts looks good on paper, but it doesn’t work. It’s been tried many times before, mostly by people who can’t raise enough money or build enough of a campaign team (some might call it a machine) to get themselves known by the electorate.

Some make the mistake of thinking that because they’re known within their own community or business circle, the rest of the city knows them, too.

They don’t. If you start without name recognition, you have to build it. You do that by running a high-energy, high-profile campaign that achieves momentum, that introduces people to your style and your substance. If they like what they see and hear, they vote for you, but if they don’t hear and see you, they won’t.

And they won’t hear and see you unless you use every means possible, including the old-style campaigning that low- or no-budget campaigns disdain. Without the machine, you can never get off the ground. If you build a base, the machine will come.

Cindy Ross Friedman has the potential to bring a brand new style — not just quirky and fun, but bright and visionary — to City Hall. But by declaring her non-campaign, she leaves the field clear to Ken Christian, who starts in front with name recognition and who will most certainly have a machine.

And, by the way, there are two other candidates in the mayoral race that have no name recognition, and the more of those on the ballot, the more Christian will stand out.

Any candidate, and this includes those running for seats as councillors, can run for the fun of running and for the experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if he or she wants to have a serious chance of winning, they need a lot more than good intentions.

When I said the by-election just got more interesting, it’s not because it got more competitive. It didn’t. It’s because it will pit a traditional campaign against a traditional non-campaign, and for the latter it will be an uphill climb.