Election Tips From the Show-Me State

Promoted from the diaries by Erick.

DISCLAIMER: I work as the legislative assistant for state representative Mark A. Parkinson of Missouri’s 16th House district (part of St. Charles County), and volunteered without pay for his campaign on quite a few occasions. The views and suggestions below do not necessarily reflect the views or suggestions of Rep. Parkinson.

Over the past year or so, I’ve had the pleasure to work in an official capacity with Mark Parkinson of St. Charles, Missouri, and to volunteer in a campaign capacity. What I observed (which is the same as I’ve observed in most successful campaigns) should serve as a guidepost for those wishing to run for office at the state or local level.

First, a brief background. Last year, Carl Bearden, the Speaker Pro Tem of the Missouri House, stepped down to take a position in the world of lobbyists. After a brutal battle, Mark Parkinson won a special election held on “Super Tuesday” to replace Bearden. Although his district is a relatively conservative patch of the St. Louis metro area, Parkinson won by 300-400 votes while having over 500 more Democrat ballots than Republican ballots cast in the election (known because his election was on the same ballot as the presidential primary ballot) while his opponent tried hard to run to the right of Parkinson. Prior to his election, Parkinson was the deputy district office director for U.S. Senator Kit Bond, working through 17 counties in northeast Missouri in the area of constituent relations.

I give out this information to illuminate the fight he faced to win reelection. The protection of incumbency, due to the time of his election, was quite small. Most of his constituents had never seen his name on the ballot before, and he was only known as a candidate of any type for less than a year before November 4th. Due to this, he was a prime target of the state’s House Democratic Campaign Committee, put on the same level as open seats. Parkinson’s opponent received endorsements from the far-left spectrum of interest groups. Parkinson, while having $7,000 in debt to pay off after the special election, only was able to raise about $26,000-16K of which was spent on this election, and the rest to pay off debts. Parkinson’s opponent raised over $100,000, mostly from unions and special interest groups. She campaigned as a moderate to center-right candidate, despite her history. Jay Nixon, the Democrat Attorney General who won the gubernatorial election 60-40, campaigned many times with Parkinson’s opponent.

And yet, come Election Day, Parkinson won 53-47-a margin of nearly 1,200 votes. How did he pull it off? The following observations I made during the course of the campaign, in my view, will serve quite mightily to those who wish to enter the public arena:

  • 1.) Work smarter and harder. When asked by a reporter about his expectations on Election Day, Parkinson replied: “I didn’t knock on 11,992 doors not to win.” That’s right-he knocked on nearly 12,000 doors (most more than once) in a district with about 15,000 or 16,000 houses or apartments. I don’t have the numbers available, but when voters where asked at the polls whether or not they had contact with the candidate, his numbers placed at or near the top of any candidate for state representative-Republican or Democrat. And, he managed to place yard signs in nearly 2,000 yards (1 out of every 8 yards) and had 4’ x 8’ signs at almost every major intersection. Simply put, he outworked the competition.

  • 2.) Constituents, constituents, constituents. Everyone complains about the accessibility of his or her elected officials. They talk about the insulation that officials have once they are in office. Parkinson, by contrast, was one of the most accessible candidates I’ve ever seen. A short trip to markparkinson.com will confirm this. He designed and programmed the site by himself, and probably has one of the best campaign websites for a state representative or senator in Missouri. He used Google Maps to create a map of the district (a feat which was copied by his opponent using cut-and-paste coding). He kept his IM clients on at almost all times, and put boxes on his site to allow visitors to know whether he was on or not, so they could talk to him in that manner. He got onto Facebook. He also has reserved a separate domain name that he intends to program to serve as an official website, since the pages offered by the General Assembly are extraordinarily barebone. And, he gave out both his home and his cell number to anyone who wanted it, and put his cell number on his campaign literature inviting constituents to contact him with any questions or concerns. By inviting constituents to contact him at any time with their thoughts, he ensured as open a conduit as possible. And they rewarded him with their votes.

  • 3.) The best legislation doesn’t always come from the legislator. In this next session, Parkinson will be introducing one or two bills that were direct suggestions from constituents. The concerns they had were always forwarded directly to me for my analysis. And many suggestions, complaints, or thoughts have been included in his work as he prepares to start another session of the General Assembly. Parkinson, in his campaigning and in his work in the legislature, has made it perfectly clear to his constituents that he is not the only wellspring of thought on the issues facing the state and/or the district.

  • 4.) Stay true to your principles. On several occasions, I witnessed Parkinson engaging in debate with constituents that disagreed with him on one issue or another. Yet, we managed to get the support of many of these folks. Why? Because they respected Parkinson for not pandering for their support. Rather than bombarding, disrespecting, or patronizing them, he respectfully disagreed, discussed his reasons for his views, asked for their views and reasons, and talked further about other issues. Those who I saw in these encounters always respected him for that.

  • 5.) Trust voters to make the right decision. On Election Day, I spent my time at a precinct in his district, over 100 miles away from where I call home (in fact, Parkinson had many volunteers-at least himself or one at all 13 precincts-while his opponent relied, in some cases, on paid individuals who did not rub off well). Across from me at my precinct was the sister of Parkinson’s opponent. Her tactic was to hold a sign, try to force literature on everyone, and asking people to “vote for my sister Kristy”. My tactic, by contrast, was to hold the sign, hold the literature in a way that let voters know it was there, and simply greet them and tell them thanks for voting. At this precinct of over 1,000 voters, I had about a dozen people come up to me and tell me that not bombarding them earned their vote. Extrapolating that out for how stingy many voters can be with talking to poll workers, you have to figure that style won quite a few more votes than a dozen. By the time the election rolls around, voters have seen and heard everything. By going silent and just giving a visual presence, it’s that much more effective that you trust them to make the right decision in the booth.

By no means are these the sole items needed to win an election. My reason for writing this is to give a few starting points for any person who wishes to succeed as an activist or candidate. Our party, however incorrect this may actually be, is viewed as the party of the stodgy old white men who live in the ivory towers and view themselves as entitled to power. Yet, in a year with every conceivable advantage breaking for his opposition, Parkinson won by a healthy margin. Using his tactics as the beginning points for your own campaign, in my view, is a good place to start.