It goes without saying that America is currently experiencing a hyper-political moment.
It goes without saying that America is currently experiencing a hyper-political moment. Every day, it seems, another veteran incumbent retires or faces a surprise intraparty challenge. This unforgiving and hostile environment means politicians will be even more sensitive to criticism, and more receptive to messages from constituents back home, than normal. For advocacy professionals, this is what’s called an opportunity. As spring turns into summer and summer turns into fall, look for advocacy organizations of all shapes and sizes -- corporations, trade associations, labor unions, left-leaning, right leaning -- to work overtime to inject their priority issues into top-tier congressional races. The psychology behind this strategy is simple: Just as auction participants can get caught up in trying to out-bid one another, desperate political candidates will attempt to “trump” one another by making increasingly bold promises or commitments on key issues during their most vulnerable moments – election season. Getting candidates on the record before they are elected to Congress is especially shrewd because once someone is elected and their respective party leaders start doling out committee (and office) assignments, it becomes increasingly difficult to penetrate “Fortress Capitol Hill.” Of course, it’s impossible for advocacy groups to play in every race, so groups will focus their resources wisely. Typical campaigns to target might include the “Top 10 US Senate Races” or the “Top 25 US House Races” as deemed by respected experts like Charlie Cook or Stuart Rothenberg. Often advocacy organizations will also target the relevant committees of jurisdiction that most directly impact their industry or special interest. Accordingly, look for these groups to use some combination of the five following tactics during the 2010 campaigns: 1. Direct Contact – Expect to see letters, phone calls, and e-mails from advocacy group members into campaign offices urging a certain position on a particular issue or policy.2. Personal Intercepts – An “intercept” is essentially when someone buttonholes a politician or staffer and starts chatting him up about their issue of choice. This usually occurs at fundraisers, debates, other public campaign events which can then be creatively followed-up by a well-crafted letter to the editor, blog post or call to local talk radio recapping the encounter. 3. Pledges and Surveys – Expect to see scores of questionnaires on key issues sent to campaign offices. For instance, “I, Candidate Smith, pledge to not raise taxes on energy during the 111th Congress … “. If Candidate Smith responds in an unfavorable way to the organization or does not respond at all, that is another opportunity for the organization to make news out of it. 4. Social Media – It just makes too much sense for groups not to create a fan page on facebook, or a YouTube channel, or to use Twitter as an earned media aggregator and message disseminator. These high-tech tools are especially useful for groups just getting started who may not have the same checkbooks of the “big boys”. These tactics can make a small group appear much larger than they are in reality.5. SMS/Text Messaging – With smartphones quickly becoming ubiquitous and nationwide texting plans getting less expensive, SMS makes more sense for advocacy organizations to take advantage of. Utilizing this technology, groups can inexpensively (and instantaneously) make their members aware of an upcoming event, point them directly to a website to sign a petition or have them directly “patched” to an elected official. At the end of the day, “special interests” are just groups of people exercising their right to advocate for a cause they believe in. By the same token, this ain’t beanbag. Depending on the issue, there could be millions of dollars – possibly billions of dollars – at stake. So, during “silly season” as President Obama calls it, look for campaigns of all shapes and sizes to be barraged by some or all of these high tech and high touch tools.John Dunagan is currently a Senior Vice President at DDC Advocacy. He was formerly the Executive Director of the Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign in Michigan.