Convincing voters in a cash-strapped state to approve billions in financing for new transportation projects, including a high-speed bullet train, is tough enough. But, what if three days before the official launch of that campaign you were faced with one of the deadliest passenger rail crashes in U.S. history?
That’s what happened to Mather Martin, campaign manager for California’s “Yes on Measure R” campaign. Backers of the measure have had the plan in the works for more than a decade, and tens of billions in funds for future transportation projects were at stake.
Just before the roll-out of the campaign in early September, a passenger rail collided with a freight train in Los Angeles killing 25 people. Suddenly, asking voters to get behind plans that included building a bullet train that would travel at speeds in excess of 200 mph through the state seemed next to impossible.
“The first thing we did was commission a poll to see if we were even viable anymore,” says Martin. So for three days the campaign did nothing, literally. For the most part they thought the poll results would show they were toast. But, they didn’t. The poll showed that safety actually took a backseat to environmental concerns about the litany of transportation projects.
“We just messaged around it as much as we could,” she says.
The campaign hit the airwaves with an ad on the environmental impacts of traffic congestion and outdated infrastructure. They also focused on area bridges that were on the national safety watch list. Measure R would provide millions for improvements.
In the two weeks before Election Day, Martin says the campaign hit the ground hard. They saturated the airwaves and targeted older white women, the campaign’s most skeptical target group, with mailers.
In the days before Election Day the campaign hired actors to stand on street corners and win attention from people in their cars and on commuter buses.
“We realized that we would have a completely captive audience of people who were stuck in traffic and just sitting in their cars,” Martin explains.
The toughest part was the need for a two-thirds vote to get the measure passed. And on Tuesday the measure prevailed by a slim margin.
Never underestimate the power of those who sit in traffic…and a well run campaign.
Shane D’Aprile is web editor at Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org