Here’s an observation I’ve been meaning to write up since Netroots Nation this summer, but one that seems particularly relevant now as both Democrats and Republicans are getting their first views of their current legislators in action: if you want to change the direction of your party in Congress, or of Congress as a whole, fund challengers’ staff early. And by “early,” I’m talking about a year in advance of the relevant primary or general election.
I’m not sure who said it at NN (possibly Matt Stoller), but the idea stuck with me because it goes to a core problem insurgents face when they’re taking on an incumbent or an establishment candidate: lack of resources when they really matter. As elections get close, blogs and activist groups can shift significant amounts of money to a “netroots” candidate on the Left (or a “rightroots” candidate on the Right?), but by then it’s often too late to make much of a difference. Since so much of creating a campaign organization is incremental — built up one volunteer, supporter or donor at a time — the really valuable time to have staff is many months BEFORE the actual vote. In effect, one hour of an organizers’s time a year before the election yields much more benefit than that same hour of work a week before the election.
Early funding also has a snowball effect — since people usually don’t want to throw their money away, they’ll generally only support a candidate who seems to have a chance to win. Before insurgent candidates can get much outside attention, they have to hit a threshold of support that indicates that they’re a serious contender. They have to have enough of SOMETHING — money, polling numbers or on-the-ground organization — to convince outsiders to get involved. And without resources and expertise available early, many candidates who might actually have a shot if given a chance never quite hit the mark. A handful of paid staff, or even just ONE paid staffer, can create the relationships and the organization that a campaign needs to prove viability, while also getting the structure in place to actually take real advantage of any money that floods in at the last minute.
Campaigns are by nature chaotic, particularly in their last weeks, when people are working frantically to get attention for their side, to counter the other guy and to take care of the thousands of details involved in getting voters motivated and to the polls. A year out, that chaos has yet to hit, and candidates and staff can make decisions based on the campaign’s long-term goals rather than based on what crisis exploded that day. If you really want to make a difference in Congress, either by changing your own party or pushing out a member of the opposition, think well in advance — identify challengers in key districts who might have a chance and get them money and staff when it matters. Otherwise, well, there are very good reasons that incumbents in Congress get re-elected at a rate well over 90%.