September 25, 2013

GEORGE SMITH: Expect to be surprised as slate for 2nd District race solidifies

George Smith

THERE'S LIKELY TO be a surprise winner in one of the crowded primaries in Maine's 2nd District congressional race. It was like musical chairs for a while, with many wishful candidates moving around the vacancy left by Mike Michaud, hoping to be the last one seated when the music stopped for good.

For some of them, the music has stopped already. Rep. Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, was in and out of the race so quickly that you probably have no idea who he is. But the cast of characters in the Republican and Democratic primaries remains large, and of course, hopeful.

Perhaps my experience in congressional races might be of interest.

Two factors will determine the winners: name recognition and turnout. Many primary voters won't know much, if anything, about the candidates. They will vote for the candidate with the most recognizable name.

This explains why Joe Baldacci, without even announcing his candidacy in the Democratic primary contest, is leading that race in the early polls. Very few voters know anything about him, but Brother John paved the way for Joe.

Jim Longley Jr. knows this phenomenon well. He got elected to Congress in the mid-1990s on the strength of his father's name and popularity.

In the Republican race, Kevin Raye, who has run for this seat twice before and served as president of the Maine Senate, is the best-known candidate, although former State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, a controversial fellow, entered the race with quite a lot of public recognition.

The importance of name recognition is the reason we suffer road-sign blight every campaign season. A road sign tells you nothing about a candidate, except his or her name. Bingo!

Of course, a candidate with tons of money will spend it on television, to build name recognition and a favorable image, but even that venue is getting more difficult, with all the various channels and shows now available and the trend toward watching shows online where, usually, viewers can skip the ads.

My first paid political job was as Bill Cohen's driver in his first race for the 2nd District seat. Bill and his exceptional campaign team, led by Dr. Christian Potholm, came up with the ingenious idea of walking across the huge district, the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River.

I drove the lead vehicle, my old white VW bus, ahead of Bill as he walked 600 miles from Gilead to Fort Kent. On the front of my bus was a sign saying, "Bill Cohen ahead. Honk and wave."

The walk did two things for Bill. Thousands of cars a day went by, saw the sign, saw Bill, honked and waved -- and appreciated the fact he was taking the time to meet Mainers in this up-close and personal way. Others actually stopped to visit with Bill, and still more encountered him as he visited businesses and main streets along the way.

The uniqueness of the walk -- a technique so often copied today that it draws little interest -- also generated tons of free press coverage. So Bill got a huge boost in name recognition from the walk and created a very positive image attached to his name.

Then comes turnout. Identifying and turning out one's supporters is where the smart candidates in crowded primaries spend a lot of their resources.

My most memorable experience of this core principle occurred in 1976. I had managed Dave Emery's astonishing upset victory over incumbent Congressman Peter Kyros in Maine's 1st District in 1974. When Dave ran for re-election in 1976, many top Democrats thought he could be beaten easily and jumped into the race, including the Democratic Party chairman, Harold "Hal" Pachios; a prominent state senator, David Bustin, and many others.

A young man named Rick Barton upset the better-known candidates and won that primary with fewer than 10,000 votes, many of which came from college students, among whom Barton concentrated his effort. Emery crushed Barton in the general election.

Geography is another factor to consider. All candidates being equal or unknown, people will vote for the candidate who lives in their area, but I don't see that as being a key factor in these two primaries.

So, as we handicap and speculate about this year's interesting race in the 2nd District, keep an eye on these two factors: name recognition and turnout.

Will other candidates raise their name recognition to match that of Baldacci, Raye and Poliquin? And who will organize the best ground games? Will that determine the winners? Expect to be surprised!

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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