Legislative term limits in Nebraska haven’t added more money to consultants’ bottom lines, but they are giving candidates more time in the field.
Some advocates worry the additional lead time for candidates and consultants is yet another step toward the permanent campaign. But for states with big-population legislative districts, an early kick off may mean that a candidate can knock on some 20,000 more doors over the course of the campaign. It could also help boost turnout and electoral competitiveness.
In Nebraska, many lobbyists and political professionals wondered what the net effect of invoking term limits on our unique non-partisan unicameral Legislature would be. I think few thought term limits for state senators, which voters approved in 2000, would actually extend the campaign season making the election cycle even longer, but that’s what has happened in Nebraska.
The political “song-and-dance” used to be played among consultants and candidates alike in trying to decide if a sitting state senator would retire or run for re-election. Because of the obvious advantages of incumbency (more access to fundraising, better name ID, more earned media opportunities, weekly radio interviews or newspaper columns, even endorsements by state political parties) there were many potential candidates who would choose to wait until a seat became open before deciding to run.
That mystery has been solved by term limits. Everybody knows when there will be an open seat and the only question is who will jump in.
Candidates in our state are announcing earlier and earlier in the 2014 cycle. There can be several advantages – and few disadvantages – to getting in a race early. If a candidate has poor name ID he/she can begin the process of meeting the important people in the district, meeting lobbyists in the state Capitol and begin raising money. In smaller communities or rural districts, there are 4th of July parades, community festivals and county fairs to attend where a candidate can meet thousands of people relatively easily without having to create their own campaign events. A candidate can just piggyback onto events where people will already be congregated.
Another advantage is that a candidate can do a slower rollout, listening to voters about what they’re concerned about, and take more time in developing his/her message. Listening to voters and personally seeing which messages resonate and which fall flat helps you create much better printed materials and paid media messages.
The longer cycle gives candidates more time for the kind of personal exposure campaigns strive for. In Nebraska, there are about 19,000 voters per legislative district. When you cut that down to frequent voters you're left with about 10,000-12,000 likely voters, depending on the district. If you household that list then you're looking at around 8,000 doors to knock on.
That sounds like a daunting task -- and it is -- but if you can start knocking a few of those out in the fall of 2013, it makes getting to all of those doors a bit easier in the spring when you have to deal with early darkness (voters are hesitant to answer their doors at night when it's dark and they don't know who could possibly be knocking on their door), the lousy spring weather (it can snow here as late as May, and you get really cold and windy/rainy weather here in the spring), and you're dealing with the more hectic campaign schedule with more events and other political activities leading up to a May Primary (here in Nebraska).
In addition to reaching more voters, getting in early also allows a candidate to lock up support from key local leaders. By doing so, when a latecomer to the race starts that process, he may realize that the key leaders are already on board another campaign. That alone may tell a would-be challenger that they shouldn’t run and the early bird can force opponents out of the race.
In many offices affected by term limits there’s not a lot of money to be spent. Making the campaign longer doesn’t have to mean greater expense, just a greater investment of time by the candidate and his/her volunteers. That’s not necessarily good for a consultant’s bottom line, but the early activity mentioned above shouldn’t take a lot of consulting time anyway, but hopefully will put your candidate in a stronger position to win. And winning should be the primary goal of the campaign.
Phil Young is a political/public relations/crisis management consultant in Nebraska. He worked in the White House Press Office under President Reagan, served as press secretary for U.S. Senator David Karnes (R-NE) and was a PR professional in Washington, D.C.