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.
Organization and Voter Education
If you’re waging a write-in bid, volunteers and political organizers better head into the field more prepared and educated than in a traditional race. They can employ traditional campaign methods, such as knocking on doors or distributing yard signs, but every organizer also needs to know the basic instructions of the state’s write-in ballot. For example, Murkowski’s volunteers distributed literature and paraphernalia with the words “Fill it in; Write it in.” It was a reminder that in Alaska, voters must not only write in her name, but also fill in the corresponding bubble with a writing utensil to ensure their ballot is counted correctly.
In any race, it helps if the candidate is an established officeholder or is already well known. But that’s even more so the case in a write-in campaign. That was the situation for Charlie Wilson, who was a state senator when he failed to make the ballot.
“You have to have someone who has a loyal following of supporters and fundraisers,” says Justin Barasky, an aide on Wilson’s campaign.
A write-in effort needs as much time as possible to organize—more time than the average race. In the 2010 cycle in Massachusetts, Republican James McKenna, garnered almost 30,000 signatures in a last-ditch effort to get on the ballot to challenge Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was running unopposed. In the end, those close to the campaign said that he didn’t have enough time to raise his name identification to really challenge Coakley.
“He started so late in the game, he got as much name recognition as possible by gathering the signatures and making that a news story. Martha Coakley had 100 percent name recognition,” says Nathan Little, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “I would have loved to have seen the race had it been a contest for more than eight weeks.”
In Murkowski’s case Alaska’s election laws were relatively lenient, and state election officials said they would only count “voter intent” when determining whether a write-in vote would count for Murkowski. That allowed room for slight misspellings of her name. (The standard was challenged in court by Murkowski’s opponent but eventually dropped because her margin of victory made her opponent’s case a moot point.) This is where knowledge of the law among field organizers can be critical. In some states, election officials are allowed to give voters a list of write-in candidates before they head into the booth. That practice is barred under Alaska law, but would be an asset for write-in candidates and organizers in states that permitted it.
Raising money outside the party structure can present one of the most difficult tasks for a write-in candidate, but a key legal decision last cycle also contributed to Murkowski’s success and will likely help future write-in candidates down the road. The Alaska Republican benefited greatly from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which permits corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures to influence political campaigns. A Super PAC, funded mostly by Native Alaskan corporations, dumped millions into the race on Murkowski’s behalf.
“It was a new effect in this election, and that is the result of Citizens United. There was a large independent expenditure against Murkowski in the primary, and a large independent expenditure for her in the general,” explains Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich. “I think campaigns need to be aware of that, and will probably react different to that now.”
It also helped that Murkowski already had money in the bank. Since she was caught by surprise when she lost her primary, Murkowski began her write-in campaign with more than $1 million cash on hand. She was also lucky in another financial respect. She didn’t need as much money because her last name had nearly 100 percent name identification from eight years in the U.S. Senate, as well as her father’s tenure in the upper chamber and as governor. Similarly, Wilson was well known because he was already a state senator in the area, and boasted a strong donor base.
For political newcomers, traditional fundraising is virtually impossible for a write-in campaign. What’s more, the cost of write-in campaigns is larger because of the complicated voter education component. That’s not to say a candidate with low name ID can’t wage a successful write-in, but they had better find a source of additional funding. Whether it’s Super PAC support or a candidate’s own deep pockets, it’s vital for first-time or little-known write-in hopefuls.
Media and Communications
A typical media plan will not suffice in a write-in campaign. Every advertisement must include education on how to write in the candidate’s name on the ballot, according to write-in campaign veterans, and it often helps to come up with a gimmicky tune for voters.
“Any medium that we were going to communicate in, we had to make sure we could work in how to go to the voting booth and properly write in Charlie Wilson,” says Barasky.
For example, Wilson released campaign advertisements with a cheesy folk-style song explaining the circumstances of his write-in campaign, as well as highlighting the backing of then-popular Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Murkowski aides toyed with releasing a jingle that included the spelling of her name to the catchy tune of the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song. In other words, voters need something extra—more than just a memory of a television advertisement—to help them remember to spell once they’re in the voting booth.
Also, traditional campaign swag (t-shirts, yard signs and hats) can serve a whole new communications purpose in a write-in bid. If state law permits, voters can bring these items into the booth to help them correctly spell the candidate’s name. Some states even allow stick-on labels for voters to paste on their ballots. Again, that wasn’t the case in Alaska so Murkowski’s team opted for yellow rubber bracelets that read, “Lisa Murkowski. Fill it in, write it in.” Supporters wore them campaigning, and voters wore them into the booth as a reminder to spell her somewhat complicated name correctly.
The good news is that technology can help in ways it couldn’t when Thurmond won his bid for Senate more than 50 years ago, or when Packard claimed victory in 1983. Veterans of the Murkowski campaign relied heavily on Facebook not only for traditional campaign organizing, but also for voter education. The more information voters glean from written communication, anything from direct mail to Twitter or Facebook, the more likely they are to remember how to spell a name—instead of trying to spell it based on how it sounds in a television commercial.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the write-in bid is that a campaign has almost no clue how successful it will be until election night. That’s because polling is more unreliable and fickle than in a traditional race.
“With a write-in campaign, you really never had any idea,” says Barasky. “There were so many unknowns, so even though things were looking good and we were raising the money we needed to—we had no idea.”
Polling write-in races is notoriously difficult because it’s nearly impossible to mimic the write-in voter experience on the telephone. In the week before the Alaska election, different polls attempting to test Murkowski as a write-in candidate showed her with anywhere from 17 to 34 percent of the vote. She won with 39 percent of the vote.
“In this particular case, there was a lot of debate about whether the real figure come the election would be closer to the lower figure or the higher figure,” says Ivan Moore, a veteran Alaska pollster. Moore recalled that when he polled Murkowski as a write-in candidate, he questioned likely voters first on candidates listed on the ballot. Then Moore followed up by asking about the candidates on the ballot, including Murkowski’s name as a write-in candidate. Murkowski’s score on the second question was always much higher.
In the end, pollsters who studied the race hailed New York Times writer and survey guru Nate Silver for coming up with the best way to survey the contest. Silver proposed asking the voter about their preference from the names of the candidates on the ballot or a write-in candidate. If the survey-taker responded with “write-in candidate,” the pollster would then follow up with a question about which write-in candidate—without prompting any names.
“In retrospect, that’s probably the best way to do it,” says Moore. However, to poll voters with such a method, live callers—or sensitive voice recognition software—are necessary, making polling a write-in campaign an even more expensive endeavor.
The bottom line, say strategists of both Murkowski’s 2010 effort and past write-in campaigns, is that while there is a path to success, you need some prerequisites. A lack of high name ID and a built-in base of fundraising support and organization are more likely than not disqualifiers.
More importantly, the lasting impact of Murkowski’s 2010 victory may be that more established candidates will now see the write-in route as a viable option if they do get edged out in a party primary. If a candidate does opt for the write-in route, Murkowski’s playbook is a pretty good start.