C&E: In terms of having a Republican win statewide, is there something that needs to change in the consulting world in order for that to happen?
Roe: It would be nice if Republicans in California tried anyone new. We’ve been using the same people since Pete Wilson was governor of California and I don’t mean that as a criticism. The state’s changed a lot. You have a lot of consultant-lobbyist types who aren’t really consultants all year. They’re consultants half the year and lobbyists half the year . The way you communicate with voters has changed so much over the past 10 years that I think the newer generation of consultants is in a better position to take advantage of it. The demographics in the state have changed so much, but our party has not changed with demographics. Now that doesn’t mean we’ve got to abandon principles on every single issue to match 100 percent what the electorate looks like, but we’re not running our campaigns anymore. We’ve gotten away from running the ground campaigns we were running when the party was still competitive. We’re not doing the engagement with millennials and minority voters that should be mandatory because you’ve got all these new consumers in the market and you’re not actually trying to sell a product to them.
C&E: So when you talk about the old guard, who are you talking about specifically?
Roe: Just look at every statewide campaign over the past decade. It’s the same guys that worked on the campaigns in the 90s—in some cases even the 80s. This isn’t really a criticism of them, but it hasn’t been working so it’s time to rotate the tires.
C&E: In terms of cultivating a client roster, Adam you’ve done Democrats and Republicans. Do you have to diversify in order to be successful?
Probolsky: Not necessarily. We also do a lot of corporate and government work, so the natural progression of our firm has been to work with labor and that sort of puts us into the Democratic side. I also grew up in Republican politics, so it allows me to do both. Going back to this chance of Republicans winning statewide, the first problem is not fixable by consultants. Only 29 percent of the voting population here is Republican, so you’ve got to start by focusing on the independent voters. There are also ways of talking to minority voters, specifically using languages. When we poll in California there’s always some other language. In San Jose there has to be Vietnamese or you’re not going to get the right numbers. If you’re polling in Diamond Bar, you have to do simple Mandarin and Korean.
I think that’s a big part of the consulting problem here. They have to start being comfortable doing foreign language mail, TV and radio. So many of our consultants are just, I don’t know if I’d call it lazy, but they just go by the same tried and true things that don’t work anymore. But even if you know what the message should be to Korean-speaking voters, the campaigns still stumble from there. They’ll send a piece of mail all in Korean to anyone with a Korean surname. The problem is if I’m born in the U.S. and I’m second or third generation, I may or may not speak Korean, but I’m probably going to be pissed that you sent something to me just in Korean. It takes a lot more effort than most consultants are willing to put in.
Kapolczynski: How do you deal with mail? I think that’s a really interesting puzzle of language and mail. I know that from Latino focus groups showing bilingual mail versus Spanish mail, some people who prefer Spanish only in the home get a Spanish-only mailer and feel like you think they don’t understand English.
Roe: I think you have to do bilingual because you don’t know just by a surname. We had a Latino candidate for city council in San Diego and his last name was Brown and when we looked at what the surname was, it was classified as black. So if you went by the surname you wouldn’t have even communicated with this person. One of the biggest mistakes that gets made on the Republican side is that we take English-language copy and translate it into Spanish. It’s the biggest mistake you can make. You’ve got to write it in Spanish.
Kapolczynski: When we did our negative [Carly] Fiorina ads in Spanish, we started from scratch partly because the concepts were complicated—Hewlett Packard laying off 30,000 workers. That just didn’t translate. So we completely redid the ad to focus more on education. We definitely kept our core message, but it did have a much different look and feel. We had Latino political consultants on our team who were always correcting the language and the images. At one point a stock image came on and our consultant said, “That’s a Puerto Rican. We need another photo.” So while we used our media consulting team to do the ads and they were terrific, we also had that cultural information from a consultant who helped us design it and make it more effective.
Probolsky: For the benefit of the readers who don’t realize how incredibly robust our voter file is in California, we know where you were born when you register to vote. We have these incredible data points of your age, gender and party and how often you vote. So I know if you’re 32 years old and you were born in Mexico, there’s a decent chance that you speak Spanish. If you’re 19 and born in Mexico, there’s a pretty good chance you’re just as well-versed in English. These data points don’t exist in other states. There are some states where you’re lucky to know whether a voter cast a vote in the last decade because the local election official just doesn’t bother to report it.
Kapolczynski: And that’s one of the reasons I asked about mail because some consultants say if you have a foreign-born, Spanish surname in a heavily Latino area, you should find some slice of the electorate to do Spanish only to. But I think it’s too risky.
Probolsky: Keep in mind that in the universe of polling people we end up having an exacerbated number of people who respond just in Spanish, because we’ll let them answer in whatever language they want. In their everyday lives, 90 percent of their conversations are in English. But in the home they feel much more comfortable speaking Spanish, so that’s what they choose to respond in.
South: There are a lot challenges in communicating with voters in Spanish, but it pales in comparison to the challenge of communicating with Asian American voters. Unlike Latinos who all speak English, Spanish or both; you have a fusion of languages among Asian Americans. With Chinese voters you not only have to deal with the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, you have to deal with the fact that now the Taiwanese use different symbols for the language. It’s not the simplified stuff that the People’s Republic of China has promulgated. You send out simplified stuff, it alienates Taiwanese. You send out traditional stuff, it’s a cue that you’re not targeting mainland Chinese. That doesn’t even take into account Japanese or Korean. In 2002, in the governor’s race, we became the first campaign to do spots in all the major Asian languages.
We were going to do an education spot, but when we went into the studio to get native speakers to do these scripts, a 27 and a half second English script was simply not susceptible to interpretation and translation into several of these languages in a way that made any sense. So we would try to truncate it. But when we started cutting it down in English, the translator would say, “This is not going to make any sense.”
Probolsky: With the Asian population, there’s a nuance where it’s not TV but radio. We have this great targeting ability to Asian populations; their media is less Americanized, so you have the ability to actually buy a half hour on Vietnamese radio. So instead of having to cut it down to 27 seconds, you have a half hour to talk your entire concept through and it only costs you $4,000 or $5,000 to talk to a large percentage of the population.
Roe: Particularly with the non-Latino population, you have these small clusters of different immigrant groups that live in California and for some reason all seem to have their own TV channel. When you get into the Asian markets, I think you’re less dependent on what you’re doing with broadcast media and more dependent on what you’re doing in very localized networks of communication that go on a much more local level. And that’s about having the right people get you into the right places and having those folks to help you navigate that. As an English speaking white boy, I don’t know what the right thing to say is.
Probolsky: You can find that person, but then all of a sudden, you find out they have the respect of 30 percent of the population, but not the other 70 percent.
Kapolczynski: One other thing on the business side—the move to the top-two system has meant twice as many campaigns in some safe districts. Most prominently, you saw the Berman-Sherman race last year where under our old system that would have been over in the primary. Now, you have to rerun the same race again. A large number of the districts in California used to be settled in the primary and then the general was basically no race run by either side. Is it good for democracy? Is it good for the candidates who are exhausted by these campaigns? Maybe not. But it has grown the cost of campaigns.
South: What’s going to be interesting is that 2014 will be the first time we have the top-two system in our statewide races. We had it for legislative and congressional in 2012. It’s very hard for me to conceive how Republicans end up in the top two in all eight of those statewide races. I think for the first time we’re going to have a couple of those races that are Democrat on Democrat in the fall, and that is a problem for Republicans.
Probolsky: Right now, a Republican can get the nod of support just because they’re willing to throw themselves up there and be that weak, worthless candidate who has no chance whatsoever. But now, you’ll see a call for better candidates.
South: I think the Meg Whitman example is a huge disincentive for self-funding candidates. She spent $180 million buying every consultant in the Western Hemisphere; she was a moderate woman and failed miserably.
Roe: Well, all of that is right but there was zero message. We don’t even know, because nothing was said. Meanwhile her opponent was talking about our issues to our voters.