A strong turnout strategy helped Joseph Cao pull off one of the cycle's biggest upsets...
You could feel the momentum building all week. The campaign was deluged with volunteers asking for signs. Democratic of%uFB01cials who were known for their courageous stands for reform smelled victory. Their Republican counterparts could sense it, the way a crowd can feel the momentum shift in a Super Bowl game. Election Day, Dec. 6, broke sunny and clear. Intersections along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans were lined with colorful campaign signs, the candidate’s name accented by a %uFB02eur de lis—the city’s emblem. This was the congressional campaign of Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao in the 2nd District of Louisiana.
Cao, a Vietnamese refugee, had the temerity to challenge nine-term Rep. William Jefferson, one of the most powerful and controversial politicians in the recent history of New Orleans. Jefferson’s ability to survive elections, even with criminal allegations hanging over his head, had impressed even his %uFB01ercest critics. By any measure, love him or hate him, the soft-spoken, Harvard-educated Jefferson had earned his reputation as a political heavyweight. Elected to the state Senate and then the U.S. Congress, Jefferson had lost two races for mayor and one for governor along his career path. He combines high intellect with a gift for street politics. That’s why it was so sad when he and other members of his family found themselves accused by federal law enforcement of putting their own %uFB01nancial interests ahead of the public interest. Jefferson was indicted for shady business dealings as he was running for reelection. Until Cao came along, though, the legal cloud had dimmed the incumbent’s star, but he was still very much alive politically.
The conventional wisdom said Jefferson couldn’t lose. The Novak Report was certain Jefferson would win. Many national Republican strategists and party of%uFB01cials had considered Cao’s candidacy so implausible that Cao was denied entry into the RNC’s school for candidates. National media attention was focused less on the 2nd District incumbency challenge and more on the open seat slug-fest in the 4th District in northern Louisiana, from which Republican Dr. John Fleming would emerge victorious in a photo-%uFB01nish. The NRCC placed its bet on Fleming, not Cao, even though in the last few days it helped support an Election Day turnout effort. The NRCC, as did everybody, saw Cao as an underdog.
At the New Orleans Palace Café restaurant, Election Night drew an excited crowd of Cao volunteers and politicians from both parties, who gathered to %uFB01nd out if they had helped make history. Early returns put Cao in front by 19 points. We knew these were deceptive. Our polling—conducted by Ron Faucheux, president of a nonpartisan Washington-based polling %uFB01rm, Clarus Research Group—had indicated that although Cao had a serious chance to win, it would likely be close. But as the evening wore on, we were still astonished. When 391 of 492 precincts had reported, Cao was still 10 points up. Suddenly the Associated Press, and then the CBS affiliate, called the race for Cao.
A Good Gumbo
Cao pulled off the upset of the year. South Louisiana had proven that its politics remained as rich as a good gumbo. This time its voters had elected the first Vietnamese-American to the United States Congress. How did it happen?
Cao won for a lot of reasons, starting with his own character and credentials, and a decision by signi%uFB01cant portions of Bill Jefferson’s constituency to vote with their feet and stay home. But this victory was no accident. It was a highly strategic campaign that easily could have gone the other way, regardless of voter turnout.
Former New Orleans Councilman Bryan Wagner, a Republican leader, had been the %uFB01rst to grasp Cao’s potential. He recruited Cao and his faith in Cao’s ability to win never wavered. He was the driving force behind this uphill battle. He was surrounded by an enthusiastic cadre of volunteers. Ironically, Cao was new to the GOP. Registered for years as an Independent, he became a Republican when he quali%uFB01ed for the seat in the summer. In Cao, Wagner had identi%uFB01ed a gifted, disciplined candidate—and a true gentleman with excellent credentials—who could hold his own in any venue.
Cao arrived in America from South Vietnam when he was 8. He earned a masters in philosophy from Fordham and for six years was a Jesuit seminarian. After he left the Jesuit life, he earned a law degree and opened a law practice based in the area’s Vietnamese community. In 2007, he ran for the state legislature. Lacking funds or visibility, he lost.
Determined, he decided to run for Congress in 2008. The campaign had little money, but scrounged together enough to hire Ruth Sherlock, an experienced campaign manager. Ruth had worked for the Republican National Committee—I %uFB01rst met her while working as the media consultant for Mike Huckabee’s gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas.
Still, Cao was considered a minor player in the congressional election. Attention focused on Jefferson’s bid for re-nomination in the Oct. 4 Democratic primary and the Nov. 4 runoff.
Over 66 percent of the 2nd District was registered Democratic and only 11 percent Republican, the rest were Independents or third parties. African-American voters comprised 62 percent of the electorate while whites made up 31 percent. Sixty-nine percent of the district is in Orleans Parish (the city of New Orleans) and 31percent in Jefferson Parish, an adjacent suburb.
Originally, the %uFB01rst Democratic primary was scheduled for Sept. 6 and the runoff for Oct. 4, with the general election on Nov. 4. But Hurricane Gustav’s disruption pushed the election cycle back one month. Hence the primary was in October, the primary runoff in November and the general election in December. The change helped Jefferson secure re-nomination by putting the Democratic primary runoff on the same day as the presidential election.
Considering the district’s voter registration, the seat always seemed to be a safe Democratic enclave. In the Democratic primary, Jefferson faced stiff competition from a strong %uFB01eld of rising stars: Councilman Byron Lee, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, Councilman James Carter, former Councilman Troy Carter, mayoral adviser Kenya Smith and former NBC broadcast journalist Helena Moreno. Moreno—who has family resources and is extremely telegenic—was the only white candidate. Polling conducted in the primary suggested that Jefferson, with low favorable ratings and high negatives, could face a tough race. But it would take the exact right combination to defeat him.
Polling indicated that Moreno and Jefferson were leading the October primary %uFB01eld, but their margins were small enough to be fragile. Jefferson mounted a well-organized, disciplined Election Day operation and beat Moreno in the November runoff, capturing 56 percent of the vote.
Below the Radar
On presidential election night, Nov. 4, many assumed the election was over. Pundits were still treating Cao as a foot-note to Jefferson’s re-election. The conventional wisdom, however, failed to look closely enough at Cao’s opportunity for an upset.
Ron Faucheux and I joined the campaign in mid-November. He did the polling, I handled the media, and we both advised on strategy. At that juncture, the campaign was full of enthusiastic volunteers and a few seasoned political pros like Wagner, Sherlock, Murray Nelson and David Williams, a former judge, but it lacked serious money and, for the most part, credibility with pundits. A major strategic consideration for the campaign was Election Day turnout. Would the turnout model fall closer to the Nov. 4 presidential election, the 2006 runoff or the 2007 gubernatorial election? We made a decision that the 2007 gubernatorial race offered the most likely scenario, and from that we drew important conclusions about what we needed to win.
Faucheux’s poll, taken two weeks before the election and based on the 2007 gubernatorial election turnout model, framed the opportunity in clear terms. The initial, unaided trial heat had Cao and Jefferson running even, which was a big surprise. Few had thought the race was that tight. While it was generally understood that Jefferson had high negatives, the intensity of those negatives was so great that it gave a candidate like Cao, who started the race as a virtual unknown, a chance to win.
The poll also tested proposed positive messages for Cao and found that when these messages were presented, Cao’s trial heat percentage grew from 35 to 50 percent, just enough to win (we calculated that the third and fourth candidates would get about 3 or 4 percent in total). Interestingly, we did not test any negative messages. We didn’t need to. Focusing on how to present Cao was the main part. Voters already knew Jefferson and were well aware of his legal problems.
The campaign selectively leaked the poll results to the news media and a story in the Times-Picayune spotlighted the unexpectedly encouraging 50-percent number. Working closely with the campaign team, we developed a logical strategy that %uFB02 owed from the polling data and the realities on the ground. It required disciplined execution. It also required quick implementation with minimal resources. That put great pressure on fundraisers and organizational leaders. Cao’s message—his rationale for the voters—was simple: Joseph Cao is a credible alternative to Bill Jefferson; if you vote, he can win and bring our district the change we need.
For the main components of the campaign plan, we decided to: Recognize that all voters knew Jefferson and held strong opinions about him that were not easy to change. Many voters respected his ability, but most didn’t like the corruption charges against him (e.g., the infamous money in the freezer story).
• Understand that this was a mobilization election, not a persuasion election. The critical question was: Who would vote? On Dec. 6, the voting universe might well divide fairly equally between voters whom Jefferson might count as a base and those to whom Cao might appeal. If so, and Cao got out his vote, he could win.
• Show that Cao could be a credible member of Congress and that he was electable—then get out the vote among those likely to support Cao, a group that included those who would not consider voting for Jefferson under any circumstances.
• Avoid stirring up Jefferson’s supporters. That meant executing a positive campaign with minimal, soft contrast.
• Avoid talking about Jefferson’s criminal indictment. Voters already knew the facts. There was no need to repeat or embellish them.
• Present Cao as a mainstream, inclusive leader. The campaign avoided party labels and polarizing words like “conservative” or “liberal.” We needed a message with nonpartisan appeal. We needed votes from Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Our polling showed that with as few as roughly 600 rating points of television time, Cao could reach enough of our target audiences to give our single TV ad adequate airing.
• Make his candidacy a civic cause for good government and change. That helped ignite grassroots enthusiasm.
• Seek the support of prominent public of%uFB01cials from both parties in order to build credibility and drive a bipartisan appeal for “a congressman we can be proud of.” That effort proved effective. Democrats such as
Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, Councilwomen Stacey Head and Jackie Clarkson, and state
Reps. Neil Abramson and Walker Hines endorsed Cao. On the Republican side, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sheriff
Newell Norman, Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise all strongly supported Cao.
• Mobilize prominent civic and political activists for Cao. These leaders included Wilma Heaton, Dana Hansel, Shane French, Fenn French and Anne Redd. Mary Matalin and journalist Julia Reed sponsored a fundraiser. Matalin worked her D.C. contacts in the Washington echo chamber. Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich, anxious to elect the nation’s %uFB01rst Vietnamese-American to Congress, lobbied the current Republican House leadership for help.
These efforts built momentum and enthusiasm. The NRCC came in during the %uFB01nal hours with turnout help that included door-knockers and phone calls. Rich Beeson, the shrewd RNC political director, early on recognized the plausibility of a Cao win and saw to it that the campaign received urgently needed “coordinated” campaign funds. Key local business leaders, led by Greg Russovich, turned their attention to Cao’s campaign and helped raise money.
Cao’s TV ad, which we produced at low cost, urged voters to elect a congressman “who works for you, not himself.” It focused on Cao’s character, credentials, opposition to higher taxes, support for charter schools and his commitment to work for new jobs, coastal restoration and flood protection. Cao’s radio ad, which ran for only the final three days, emphasized his credentials and pointed out that a vote for him would end the embarrassment of Jefferson’s scandals and give the district a needed change. Direct mail, produced by local consultant Greg Buisson, reinforced these messages in a targeted way. Wilma Heaton designed and got out an Election Day door- knocker that helped get out the vote.
Jefferson’s campaign exuded an air of exhaustion. In two years, this was his %uFB01fth reelection battle. He had a tough primary and runoff in 2006. In 2008, he had two tough party primaries and now a general election. He did not seem to take Cao seriously until the end. By then, it was too late. Cao won by a 2.7 point margin, capturing 49.5 percent of the vote. Our poll showing we could get 50 percent with an unobstructed positive message had hit the electoral nail on its head. And with this win came a gasp of shock from the political establishment in both Louisiana and Washington, on both sides of the partisan aisle. Mr. Cao would go to Congress and, after 18 years, Mr. Jefferson would go home.
James Farwell is president of The Farwell Group, a media and strategy consulting %uFB01rm based in New Orleans.
Toppling Bill Jefferson
by James Farwell / Feb 01 2009
A strong turnout strategy helped Joseph Cao pull off one of the cycle's biggest upsets.
A strong turnout strategy helped Joseph Cao pull off one of the cycle's biggest upsets...