Note: this post originally appeared on Just Up the Pike.
The reaction to my earlier guest blog (Teachers Union: the 800 lb. Gorilla of MoCo Politics) contained some agreement and some disagreement. Critics of my analysis question the relevance of the Apple Ballot, arguing that the county’s voters made their decisions on another basis, namely growth. I thought this comment was worthy of further examination.
Local politicians have two elementary tasks: A) develop and refine their message, and B) amplify it. Message content is the product of the politician’s beliefs and his or her opinion of the positions of the constituents. Message amplification is a logistical issue: the candidates need to spread their message to the greatest number of voters. In the 2006 primary election, amplification was a critical determinant of electoral success.
Message amplification is affected by the way in which voters obtain political information. “Passive consumption” involves television coverage, newspaper articles, campaign literature and advertisements. These sources are easily available, quickly consumed, and require no sacrifice or time adjustments by voters. “Active consumption” involves attendance at campaign events, writing letters and emails, and actual meetings with candidates and surrogates – sometimes at the voters’ initiative. These activities require considerably more time and effort for voters, and so they are far less frequently used than passive consumption.
In national races, passive consumption is often enough to allow voters to make relatively informed decisions. The current U.S. Senate race in Virginia is one example. Voters can read many newspaper articles and view frequent television coverage to form their opinions of George Allen and Jim Webb. They do not have to actually hear each candidate speak in person to learn their positions on, for example, the war in Iraq. Each candidate can additionally draw on a party apparatus and many surrogates to press his case for election.
In local races, passive consumption is less practical. Television coverage of the Montgomery County Executive race was scanty and perfunct. The print media was better, but Washington Post voters had to dig into the Metro section to read about the executive candidates. Television and print coverage of the county council and statehouse races was very sparse. The candidates’ literature and websites were hardly more informative. Every one of the Democratic candidates say that they support education, oppose traffic congestion, support diversity and will work on behalf of their constituents. No candidate proclaims their support for unfettered development. As a result, passive consumption – the preferred information receipt mechanism of most voters – is not sufficient to allow them to differentiate between local candidates. The sole useful source of passive consumption may be the Apple Ballot, which comes from a trusted source (the Teachers) and is delivered just outside the voting precinct.
As for active consumption, I practiced it during this election cycle. I met eleven candidates running for county office and almost every statehouse candidate in my district. I attended one debate, three campaign coffees, and several community events where candidates appeared. By September 12th, I felt I had learned enough to cast an informed vote. But how many voters actually apply this much energy to determining their choice in local races? A few thousand in the entire county? If this is the case, then where did the tens of thousands of votes necessary to elect winning at-large council candidates come from?
Faced with the limited usefulness of passive consumption and the infrequent practice of active consumption, the candidates must work very hard to reach out to voters. One aspect of this is fund-raising; an often-detested job that most candidates regard as a necessary evil. Another aspect is endorsements – especially from organizations that can deploy volunteers. Many candidates regard election-day volunteers as a more valuable resource than dollars since enthusiastic bodies are much more scarce than money. I personally witnessed a half-dozen candidates show up at my precinct to lobby last-minute voters. Two sent their wives.
The critical advantage of the Teachers Union in the 2006 Democratic primary relates to its epic ability to mobilize large numbers of election-day volunteers. I saw at least four carriers of the Teachers’ “Apple Ballot” at my voting precinct. This projects to over 800 “Apple” volunteers across the county if the union’s efforts were evenly spread. I have not heard of either Neighbors for a Better Montgomery (a group favoring development restrictions) or the Washington Post endorsement staff fielding a similar number of volunteers across the county. And of course, the Teachers’ mobilization capacity was substantially aided by the closing of the public schools on primary day. Distribution of the Apple Ballot may have been the most effective information consumption technique of the entire campaign, passive or active, by any organization or candidate.
The Apple volunteers were able to sway the opinions of many of the last-minute voters in my precinct by appealing to them to consider the opinions of “teachers” – not the “Teachers Union.” In my thirteen hours outside my precinct, I saw over a hundred voters read the Apple, occasionally while sitting on a bench outside the door and away from the electioneers, before heading into the voting building. The fact that the union’s endorsees won 27 of 30 contested races at the state and county levels testifies to the success of its efforts.
Four years ago, two of the Teachers’ endorsees were losing at-large candidates Blair Ewing and Marc Elrich. So far this year, none of the Teachers’ county-level endorsees have lost, including the phoenix-like Elrich. In fact, the Teachers’ at-large county council candidates (George Leventhal, Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg) finished first, second and third, while two incumbents the Teachers did not endorse, Nancy Floreen and Mike Subin, finished fourth and fifth. Not being foolish, the Teachers declined to endorse the opponents of council members Phil Andrews (District 3) and Marilyn Praisner (District 4), each of whom was sure to crush their opposition.
As my critics argue, growth was certainly a big issue in this race. It had a significant impact on the County Executive contest, in which MCEA made no endorsement. And it was also a factor in the county council races, as any observer of one of the candidate debates would conclude. But compare the electoral record of the Teachers with that of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery (aka Neighborspac), a citizens organization arguing for limits on development. MCEA endorsed five candidates in contested county council primaries: Mike Knapp (District 2), Valerie Ervin (District 5), and Leventhal, Trachtenberg and Elrich (at-large). All of those candidates won. (The fate of Republican Howard Denis, who represents District 1 and was endorsed by both the Teachers and Neighborspac, will be decided in the general election.)
Neighborspac endorsed nine candidates in contested county primaries: Of those, six won. The group’s at-large candidates finished second, third, seventh and eleventh, while MCEA’s picks finished first, second and third. Neighborspac took more risks than the Teachers, choosing to oppose four incumbents, three of whom won despite the group’s opposition. (Subin, a target of both the Teachers and Neighborspac, was the only defeated incumbent.) MCEA was more conservative, choosing to endorse three rather than four at-large council candidates, leaving room for one of its non-endorsed incumbents to win. And while the Teachers clearly disliked Andrews and Praisner (criticizing them as “fiscal conservatives”), they did not support their opponents.
Neighborspac and MCEA faced off against each other on incumbent at-large council member and 2006 council president George Leventhal. Neighborspac criticized Leventhal for accepting 43% of his campaign contributions from developers, a charge the council member disputed. The group even depicted Leventhal as a puppet dancing on developer-controlled strings in its infamous “County Council Can-Can” internet animation.
The Teachers rallied to Leventhal’s defense. In endorsing him, MCEA wrote, “He championed the ‘Montgomery Cares’ program, which makes health care accessible for poor, uninsured county residents. George is seen as one of the more reliable pro-labor members of the council, consistently supporting negotiated contracts and the revenue proposals necessary to fund them.”
MCEA won this clash as Leventhal finished first in the at-large race. Additionally, MCEA endorsee and incumbent Mike Knapp (District 2) defeated Neighborspac endorsee and challenger Sharon Dooley by nearly 30 points. If growth was the dominant issue in the election and Neighborspac the most influential group, how can the victories of Leventhal and Knapp be explained? Overall, MCEA’s 5-0 record compares favorably to Neighborspac’s 6-3 record.
Neighborspac has two of the three elements required for a successful citizens’ pressure group: a research-backed policy agenda and political allies. It lacks the third element: a large number of volunteers, particularly election-day volunteers. The group should consider developing an election-day “Neighbors Ballot,” assuming it can round up 800+ volunteers to distribute it. Until Neighborspac assembles this kind of volunteer network, it will not match the power of the Teachers Union. Still, with a council lineup including at least five endorsees in addition to new County Executive Ike Leggett, Neighborpac is poised for success in obtaining at least some of its goals.
The Teachers, with a so-far perfect electoral record in this year’s county council contests, a professional and experienced leadership, and an army of election-day volunteers, should score many of their legislative wins by heftier margins than a mere five votes. Their power will soon be put to the test as their current contract expires next summer.