This past election cycle offered up no shortage of political shockers with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R) winning write-in bid standing out as one of 2010’s most improbable feats. She was the first write-in candidate in more than 50 years to win a U.S. Senate race.
Given what’s shaping up to be another volatile election year in 2012, Murkowski’s win begs the question: Can write-in success happen again? And if it can, is the Alaska Republican’s strategy the playbook to follow for a candidate who has no other choice but to go the write-in route?
Strategists and veterans of Murkowski’s successful write-in effort say there might be an opening—albeit a small one—for lightening to strike twice in a generation of politics. But, they warn, you better have a lot going for you. They caution that a write-in bid alters just about every aspect of the traditional campaign blueprint, from media strategy to grassroots outreach. Educating voters on the process of casting a write-in ballot becomes just as critical as rallying support for your candidate. Measuring progress isn’t only tougher for your pollster—it’s more of a hit to the campaign’s bottom line. And that’s all before having to wage the legal battles that may result from a close write-in race.
Can ‘Let’s Make History’ Set a Precedent?
Murkowski’s success story began with a defeat that easily could have been the end of her political career. Tea Party-backed Joe Miller—a political novice—ran to the right of Murkowski in the Republican primary, stunning the political world by beating out Murkowski for the nomination. For Murkowski, the decision to launch a write-in bid was truly the last resort.
“We really had to go the write-in route because there was no other way,” says Kevin Sweeney, Murkowski’s write-in campaign manager. “Given the choice, I would have much rather had [her] name on the ballot.”
When Murkowski declared her write-in bid six weeks before the general election date, she announced her campaign slogan: “Let’s make history.” Indeed, no one had run a successful write-in campaign for Senate since 1956, the year the late Sen. Strom Thurmond won as a Democrat in South Carolina.
Prior to Murkowski, there had been at least some positive history for write-in candidates. In the more than five decades between Thurmond and Murkowski, others had won write-in campaigns for lesser offices: Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.) in 1982, Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) in 1958, and Rep. Dale Alford (D-Ark.) in 1980.
Even more recently, a few members of Congress have won their party’s nomination via write-in vote: Former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) and Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) both did it in 2006. In 2004, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) won his primary via write-in. Rep. Aaron Shock (R-Ill.) also won the first campaign of his political career—a race for local school board—as a write-in candidate.
Veterans of the Murkowski operation and other write-in campaigns describe the experience as waging a campaign on two fronts—a political campaign combined with a voter education initiative—all without ever having a sense of how they would perform with voters. According to strategists involved in the planning and execution of several winning write-in efforts, pulling it off means taking a different approach to five fundamental aspects of the traditional campaign—from organization to survey research.