On Friday, October 30, in the dressing room of a costume store, I learned from my trusty Blackberry that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was no longer a candidate in the Democratic race for Governor. Despite Newsom’s charm and charisma, policy knowledge, and robust inventory of high-profile supporters, Mayor Newsom found himself behind Attorney General Jerry Brown by 8-to-1 in campaign cash and 20 points in the polls. On Friday, Newsom stated publicly, “With a young family and responsibilities at City Hall, I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to — and should be — done.”
The graveyard of the Newsom campaign is littered with cautionary tales. From the numerous columns, blogs, and “insider reports” that I’ve taken in on the subject, the more I believe that the Newsom campaign’s failure to launch has major implications for the future of political campaigning.
Newsom’s main strategy largely mirrored the ideology of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. Dean, on the advice of strategist Joe Trippi, became legendary for his ability to reach out to young and low-dollar progressive supporters via the communication tools of the internet, and relied heavily on the ability of the progressive, green, and gay movements to contribute financial support.
We all know how that turned out.
Similarly, Newsom invested a large portion of his resources toward a cutting-edge internet campaign, utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere. However, this was no substitute for a grassroots, face-to-face operation that involved real – not virtual – solicitation of support. According to one insider, Newsom would make endless excuses for blowing off scheduled time for fundraising solicitation calls. In an attempt to suppress the frequent attacks of “Political Attention Deficit Disorder,” his campaign staff arranged for an office across the street from City Hall and an endless series of reminders and subtle persuasions in that direction. Insiders report that Newsom, despite the diligent pleas of campaign staff, could not be made to make the phone calls — even in the car during drive time — for a senator’s birthday or a labor leader’s new baby or whatever political urgency needed attention at any given moment.
“I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to – and should be – done.”
So how “should” it be done? The “grassroots fundraising” technique that failed Dean received a major face-lift from the Obama campaign; some even dedicate the victory over Hillary Clinton in the primaries to Obama’s unique ability to take internet campaigning to a new level. But the cautionary tale of the once-was Newsom campaign warns campaigners of the digital age not to forget the basics.
Just days before his official withdrawal from the race, Newsom stated, “If the entire campaign is just who raises more money, than we shouldn’t do anything except just sit on the phone and dial for dollars.” The moral of the story here is that although the tools of the internet allow for large-scale involvement of a wider audience, there is no substitute for the face-to-face, voice-to-voice interaction between candidate and voter that has epitomized the spirit of successful and inspirational campaigns of days past.