For those of us who served in the military, Sun Tzu is probably the most oft-quoted military strategist—and for good reason. The philosophy he laid out in his “Art of War” still dictates much of our military strategy today. It’s something I brought with me when I began my work in politics, specifically when I co-founded VoteVets.org.
Sun Tzu wrote, “One who knows when he can fight and when he cannot fight will be victorious.”
Since 2006, VoteVets.org has helped numerous veterans and progressive Democrats win seats in Congress—Patrick Murphy, Joe Sestak, Tim Walz and Gary Peters, just to name a few.
Additionally, we’ve helped take down a number of sitting members of Congress, who, while saying they were pro-military and pro-veteran, were not. We did so by choosing our battles wisely. There have literally been hundreds of candidates I’ve been incredibly fond of, personally, but VoteVets didn’t spend resources on, because we had to be realistic about where we could and could not wage a winning fight.
I knew in my gut that Tulsi Gabbard in Hawaii was one of the most compelling veterans we ever had the chance to promote. The problem was that she was a nearly 50 point underdog in the polls, and the conventional wisdom in D.C. was that she had no shot.
She was unknown and running against Mufi Hannemann, the former Mayor of Honolulu, who was viewed by some as the establishment candidate. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the conventional wisdom on this one was wrong. Gabbard represented a different kind of candidate. In the past, VoteVets has worked with candidates who served their country, and then entered politics. Tulsi was the first ever legislator in Hawaii—and the first we’ve ever spoken with—to leave elected office and head to war.
As someone who left VoteVets to do my second tour in Iraq, that meant a lot to me personally. She took a strong position opposing the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which was a marked contrast from other veterans who have approached VoteVets for support.
This was key in Hawaii given that politics is very insular there. Elected officials seem to play a game of musical chairs—a governor runs for mayor, a congressman runs for governor, and in Mufi Hannemann’s case, a mayor runs for Congress. It isn’t very often that Hawaiians have a chance to vote for someone fresh and new. So our thought was that this put Tulsi in a very good position.
Tulsi was already raising money on her own with the little support given to her from outside her personal networks. She was fresh, young, attractive and her service was the real deal. While the topline poll numbers said she had no shot, we decided to take a closer look.
A Bleak Polling Picture
The initial polling wasn’t promising. In a Ward Research poll from early 2012, Hannemann led Tulsi by a whopping 45 points—65 percent to 20 percent. Moreover, Hannemann was well-known and mostly well-liked. In a February poll for Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 59 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Hannemann.
An internal poll conducted on the Hannemann campaign’s behalf in January found his favorability to be 57 percent and confirmed the 45 percent lead in the ballot.
This is what led most observers to look at the polling and conclude that Tulsi had no shot. After looking at the polls with VoteVets’ pollster Celinda Lake, however, we discovered something. On the surface, Hannemann didn’t look like a weak candidate. But he was very vulnerable and we felt that VoteVets was positioned to hit those cracks in the armor, while raising Tulsi’s profile.
Hannemann had run for Congress before—more than once. In 1986, he lost a general election and in 1990, he didn’t make it past the Democratic primary. Hannemann has taken hits before thanks to his social conservative positions, so we knew that a primary challenger with the backing to take him on could change the dynamic of the race.
We also think VoteVets appeals to certain segments of voters like no one else in the progressive arena. Polling done by Lake Research suggested that our voice goes beyond veterans’ issues and is strong on the economy, too. That’s important at a time when progressives continue to seek a credible voice on those issues. So we can appeal to base progressive voters, swing voters, and can actually cross-pressure conservative voters who might typically support Republican candidates.
We saw that working to our advantage in this contest given that Republican and Independent turnout was expected in opposition to a rail project backed by Hannemann. These voters would become prime targets for VoteVets. And unlike many other progressive messengers, we can have a greater impact when it comes to sharing messages with male voters—particularly white men.
We decided it created a perfect-storm opportunity that would allow VoteVets to spend money wisely and frugally, focusing on those voters where it had maximum persuasion—cross-over men, who are most likely to vote. That would allow Tulsi to drill down on traditional progressive voters on issues of importance to them.
Phase 1: Raise Name ID
Tulsi’s biggest problem was that people didn’t know her. This is where Hannemann made a huge mistake, and we were able to capitalize. Given that she wasn’t polling well and had incredibly low name ID, Hannemann didn’t work to define her before she could define herself. This is where we pounced.
VoteVets launched an initial $125,000 buy (900 GRPs) on a TV ad that featured Tulsi’s bio and said her name five times in 30 seconds. It featured four Hawaii veterans, including one who served with Tulsi, talking about her decision to volunteer for military service, her return to public service when she got home and her experience working to help veterans in Sen. Akaka’s (D-Hawaii) office.
Hannemann then chose to chase VoteVets’ positive bio by trying to highlight his own. He spent money on a 60 second bio spot and a newspaper ad, blowing much of his war chest. What’s worse, he looked scared by doing so. This gave us a bit of public momentum at a time when Hannemann was trying to convince people that there was no race.
Phase 2: The Cavalry Arrives
A public poll released by Civil Beat after the initial ad buys wrapped showed an incredible turnaround—Tulsi had gained 45 points and the race was a dead heat. Interest in the race was significantly heightened, both locally and nationally.
It helped lead to backing from EMILY’s List and Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who raised $30,000 for Tulsi. The fundraising efforts focused on opposition to Hannemann’s conservative social views. EMILY’s List commissioned a poll, which not only backed the gains found in the Civil Beat poll, but showed us that the ad was having a messaging impact.
In their poll, conducted by Grove Insight in June, one thing really stood out: of all the messages tested, the strongest in Tulsi’s favor was that she represented a “different kind of leader” and a “spirit of service.” That mirrored our ad.
Most importantly, while a poll conducted by the Mellman Group before the spot showed that only 35 percent of likely Democratic primary voters had a favorable view of Gabbard, that increased to 59 percent by July. By this time, VoteVets had expanded its ad buy with another $99,000 in ads.
As well as she was doing, Tulsi still needed help on the outer islands. So VoteVets began sending positive, bio driven mailers to the voters it had the most sway with—males. The goal was to reinforce our TV spot and further drive positive name ID. Along with the new involvement of EMILY’s List, which focused on women across the board with their own ad, it was a one-two punch.
Phase 3: Reinforcing Negatives
Maybe not all that surprisingly, the strongest negatives tested against Hannemann in the EMILY’s List poll were that he was a career politician who had a habit of “talking stink” during his previous campaigns.
Further, voters were swayed by messaging on Hannemann’s campaign donors receiving city contracts for a rail project he championed—the same project that was driving votes in Oahu against him.
While his negatives weren’t high with voters overall, they were high among those undecided voters (36 percent)—the very people VoteVets had already decided to target. So with Gabbard surging, VoteVets latched onto those negatives sending mailers to key households in the district, which contrasted those negative views of Hannemann with the fresh approach and different kind of politics represented by Tulsi. Yet we didn’t announce the mailers until just days before the race, leaving no time for Hannemann to try to reverse the damage.
Gabbard won her primary over Hannemann by a whopping 20 points—a full 65 point swing from that first poll. Her margin of victory on the outer islands (where we focused) was virtually identical to her margin on Oahu, her original stronghold.
We view the Gabbard race as a test case for the power of VoteVets—not just in swing races, but even in races where it looks like a candidate has no shot. Bottom line: we’re well-funded and we intend to be a major player, not just in close races, but across the board in 2012 and beyond.
Jon Soltz is an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, a 501(c)(4), which focuses on advocating for veterans.