Street Smarts

By staff May 1, 2008

A campaign advisor for 22 years, Tom Nolan heads Bradenton’s the Nolan Group. He’s handled communications for many political clients, including Congressman Dan Miller and former state senator John McKay, as well as for mayors, city councilmen and special referendums. In all, he’s worked on more than 130 campaigns—and won over 85 percent of them.

There are two kinds of elections. Candidate referendums are built around a personality. Loyalty is to the candidate. An issue referendum is built around an idea. The voters’ loyalty may be to the idea or to the people who are backing the idea. Issue referendums are driven by a committee that raises money and handles the campaign. In a candidate campaign, all those functions are accomplished by the candidate.

People who want to become candidates need to examine where they are in their life, whether they can take the time to do it, whether they have the ability to raise the money, if they can put money into it themselves, if so, how much? Some people jump right in—single-issue candidates who have one issue that makes them want to run. For instance, they’re fed up with traffic and want to install traffic calming so they run for office. Those kinds of candidates seldom win.

Open a bank account for the campaign. All contributions have to go into that account; all expenditures have to come out of that account. Anything other than that is illegal.

Florida law says you can’t take a contribution in excess of $500. In Sarasota County, a campaign contribution cannot exceed $200. It’s much harder to raise the amount of money you need to run. Candidates have to look harder at self-funding. And you’re much more dependent upon a bigger network of people to help you.

I did a campaign once where my candidate’s last name was Crook. He was well qualified for the job, but we lost. It was hard to get people to vote for someone to handle their money whose last name was Crook.

Good campaigns focus on three or four issues. I worked for a woman who’d served one term in the state house and then was defeated. She said to me, “I have no idea how I got beaten. I always had new ideas; he kept saying the same thing.” Her opponent had three things that people agreed with, and he said them over and over again. She had 40 different messages. That means she had no message at all.

Name recognition is huge. You can have a good slogan that people like, but if they don’t know who to attach it to, it doesn’t do you any good. Signs are a really inexpensive way to get name recognition. In Sarasota County, if I’m an under-funded candidate, I’m looking at signs and TV.

Direct mailing is my No. 1 choice to publicize a campaign. It’s a rifle shot at the voters you want to reach. But you have to get your message across quickly: You only get eight seconds before they get to the trash can.

Polling is invaluable. It’s where you learn what motivates people and whether or not your ideas match up with where the public is. If you find that 65 percent of men or women or African- Americans or Republicans or Democrats support one of your issues, you can target them. Or you can see what’s important to certain demographics and talk about it.

If you don’t have money for polling, get 20 of your friends together in a room and talk about what’s important. Keep in mind, most people don’t have a real diverse group of friends, and the trick of getting together a “kitchen cabinet” is people from different walks of life who have different opinions. Group intelligence is better than individual intelligence.

I just did Wayne Poston’s campaign for mayor of Bradenton. He won by only 23 votes, but at the end of the day, 23 votes feels like 50,000.

If you say something and people nod their heads up and down, say more of that. If people shake their heads, don’t say that anymore. If you find out your big idea doesn’t match with where the public is, but you have a bunch of other ideas that do match up, talk about those. Unless you’re elected, your big idea doesn’t matter. Campaigns don’t have enough time and enough money to convince people of something they don’t already believe in.

The only thing I know of that increases voter turnout is top-of-the-ballot elections. A presidential race will motivate 75 percent of the voters. A congressional race, a gubernatorial race, these get people to vote. If you end up in an election that has all down-ballot races—city council, for example—you’ll get maybe 30 percent voter turnout. If I could tell you how to change that, I would be very wealthy.

You can do everything right and still lose. A few years ago, we did a race for Manatee County commissioner against an incumbent who was around 65 at the time. We did polling that told us the incumbent was foggy on the issues, so we used the word “foggy” in one of our mailings. After we lost the election by very few votes, a reporter asked me, “Do you think if you hadn’t insulted older voters you could have won?” I asked him what he was talking about. “You called him a fogy,” he said. The mailing said “foggy,” but somebody picked that up and walked around a big precinct saying we’d called him a fogy. We lost that one precinct by something like 80 percent. That was the difference.

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