June 25, 2013 – Lowell – Markey, 5656 (57%) – Gomez, 4150 (42%)
Why did Ed Markey win Lowell? I don’t know for sure but since I was involved in his campaign from the beginning, I figured I’d offer up some observations for whatever they’re worth. A more fact-based answer might come once we get hold of the voter list that will show who actually voted. Since the number who voted in this election was almost exactly the same as the number who voted in the last city council race, the first thing I want to find out is whether it was the same 9900 people who voted in both.
The single biggest factor in Markey’s victory here came from beyond the city borders and beyond the borders of the Commonwealth, for that matter. The extremism of the national Republican Party drove voters to Ed Markey’s column. That’s why Markey ceaselessly drove home core issues like women’s rights, an assault rifle ban and protecting the environment. The voters responded positively. That’s also why hollow attacks against Markey’s long tenure in Washington never gained traction.
Back in January 2010 a majority of the Commonwealth’s voters allowed their hopes for bipartisanship to lead them to vote for Scott Brown almost because he was a Republican, not in spite of that. But as the voters (and Scott Brown) discovered, having “bipartisanship” as your core value in today’s US Senate makes for an ineffective and short time in office. So Ed Markey won Lowell by 15%, just as Elizabeth Warren won the city by 18% last fall. (The same dynamic will not exist in next year’s statewide campaign for governor since voters will rightly understand that the craziness of the national Republicans will not necessarily infect a moderate member of that party who ends up in the governor’s office with a legislature composed almost entirely of Democrats).
While national issues convinced a majority of voters to favor Ed Markey, there was no guarantee people so deciding would actually vote. That’s where the grass roots volunteers come in. After fighting through blizzards and sub-zero wind chills in February to collect thousands of nomination signatures, a core group of about three dozen volunteers started canvassing Lowell for Ed Markey. “Canvassing” means having a list designated by the statewide campaign headquarters (HQ) of particular voters and their addresses. The canvasser goes to the address and rings the bell. If someone answers, the canvasser launches into a script provided by HQ and records the result (Markey – Gomez – Undecided). If no one answers, the canvasser leaves a piece of campaign literature at the door. When the “shift” is over – and a shift is about 50 doors in the same precinct which takes about 3 hours to accomplish – the canvasser returns the score sheet to the local headquarters where the voter-by-voter results are quickly entered into a central database.
The content of the script varies based on the objectives of statewide HQ. Sometimes it’s a simple voter ID, sometimes it’s to persuade undecideds, and in the final week it’s all about ensuring ID’d supporters actually vote. The weekly results aren’t filed away; they’re part of a dynamic system that continuously refines itself as the campaign progresses.
The modern statewide campaign is all about knocking on doors. There’s lots of phone calls, too, but they’re primarily to recruit more volunteers to canvass and to reach voters in apartment buildings and condominiums that are inaccessible to a volunteer on the ground. Traditional activities like holding signs at street corner visibilities or mailing “Dear Friend” cards aren’t considered by strategists to be effective or wise expenditures of effort or money. That said, holding signs does have value as a “gateway” activity for new volunteers who might not be initially comfortable with the idea of door knocking. After a few nights holding signs with other volunteers, the new person’s willingness to canvass will hopefully evolve.
This single-minded devotion to door knocking by the higher HQ can create considerable friction with the local volunteer force, especially in a community that has a well-organized party campaign apparatus. Fortunately for Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Lowell didn’t have that. There were no bad habits to unlearn. It’s no coincidence that almost none of the three dozen top canvassers in the local Markey campaign had ever been involved in any local campaigns (for many of them, last fall’s Warren campaign was their first). A great effort for city council or state representative still has at its core the candidate and a handful of friends sitting around a kitchen table plotting strategy. Modern statewide campaigns are very different. They’re based on scientific inquiry, on what quantifiably produces good outcomes, on the research of people with doctorates in political science. What happens in one community is just one piece of a statewide puzzle. To someone schooled and successful in local politics, the statewide campaign’s strategy for that person’s community might seem disjointed, even irrational. In such a situation, it’s very tempting for the experienced local volunteer to proclaim “I know what works in my community” but it’s important to fight that urge and accept direction from higher HQ as almost an article of religious faith.
The most important person in this scenario is the field organizer (FO) hired by the campaign to oversee a particular city or region. That person has an incredibly difficult job. Almost always in their 20s, field organizers must persuade the local volunteer force, usually composed of people the age of the field organizer’s parents, to execute the campaign’s very demanding plan for that community, a plan as mentioned above that is often at odds with the instincts and experience of the volunteers. In Lowell, the Markey campaign was both fortunate and wise to hire as its field organizer Ariela Gragg who served a similar role here in last year’s Warren campaign. (Full disclosure: the other Lowell field organizer for the Warren campaign was my son Andrew but he’s living in Cambridge now and only got involved in the local Markey effort as a volunteer in the final week of the campaign).
And then there were the volunteers, a great group of hard-working, dedicated individuals who never complained and never second-guessed the campaign strategy but just went out an executed it. Journalists who write or speak about a “Democratic machine” in Massachusetts are clueless. It’s just people from all races, classes and backgrounds who feel passionate about national politics and have made the commitment to do what they can to influence the outcome.
Another group that is clueless are all who attribute Democratic victories in urban areas to the “Mitt Romney 47%” meaning those who depend on government for their existence. That’s BS, of course, but it makes some people feel better (or is it feel superior?). Ironically, the most reliable Republican voters in this state seem to be current or retired government employees, but that’s another story. As for the Democratic success in urban communities, it’s no secret that a lot of people are moving into cities (and staying in cities) because – they like cities. They like the diversity, the culture, the variety of life. Such people tend to be progressive in their politics. This is not limited to Lowell; it’s a national phenomenon. Such people formed a big slice of the Markey coalition in Lowell. Another big piece of that coalition was the Cambodian community which is proving itself to be a very important force in Lowell politics. The same can be said of the very active, though relatively smaller, African community. The third and final slice of the Markey coalition was people born during the Great Depression or World War Two. In their 70s and 80s now, these people are not just the most reliable voting cohort, they’re also the most reliable Democratic voters. One thing that unites these three disparate groups is a sense of empathy for those who struggle in life. And two of these groups – those who embrace city life and those who are members of our newer ethnic groups – are only going to get bigger and wield more influence in the city and the region.
So that’s my take on why Ed Markey won Lowell by 15%. It’s not scientific and maybe rambles on too much, but there it is.