Monday, August 9, 2010

Bill Hobbs: Hall Pass

by Bill Hobbs, reposted with permission from Bill Hobbs Facebook page

The nomination of David Hall as the Republican candidate in Tennessee's 5th congressional district is the result of multiple failures - on the part of the news media, which utterly failed to do its job, and by the Tennessee Republican Party, which appears to have already conceded the November election to incumbent Democrat Jim Cooper.

With Hall - a nominee unable to raise money and already mired in an FEC probe into a $200,000 campaign transaction with a corporation of murky identity and ties to another company alleged to have scammed people online for millions of dollars - the state GOP has a ready-made excuse to do what you know the current party leadership wants to do: concede the 5th district and direct all of its congressional efforts and re$ources to holding the 3rd district seat and winning the 6th and 8th district seats.

In a year when Democrats are being defeated even in very-blue places like Hawaii and Massachusetts and independent polling shows that only 23% of likely voters want Jim Cooper re-elected, Jim Cooper is vulnerable. And if the GOP is to win 40 seats nationally and take control of Congress, it is going to have to defeat a few incumbents like Cooper whose district leans Democrat but only slightly.

But you can't win if you don't play and the Tennessee GOP just got a Hall pass to skip out on the 5th district race.

The Media's Failure:
The Tennessean wrote only three stories about candidates in the 5th District Race - a profile of Jeff Hartline, the only candidate who showed the ability to raise large amounts of money from donors; CeCe Heil, an attorney and the only female in the race, upon her endorsement by Sarah Palin; and a story about David Hall, whom they covered as a novelty act because several Hall family members were running for every elected office in town.

Newspaper folks often talk importantly about their duty to inform the public, and their important role in our democracy because of the need to have an informed electorate. Yet they virtually ignored the 5th district race, ignored 7 of the 11 candidates entirely, and did not cover any of the many multiple-candidate forums.

They failed to adequately inform the electorate. Readers got plenty of coverage of Paul McCartney's Nashville concert, on which the future direction of American government policy and the economy does not rest.

The Hall, Heil and Hartline campaign had very different media strategies.

The media strategy of the Hartline campaign, with which I worked*, was issues-focused. We released numerous news releases, statements and blog posts focused on current news and issues like the economy, jobs, the spiraling national debt and more. The blog posts, written by Jeff Hartline, were issues-focused. Jeff believed in talking to voters about serious issues.

We got some play online, but in retrospect it was futile to think the news media had the slightest interest in covering the race, much less making the coverage about issues.

The Heil campaign media strategy revolved around touting Heil's endorsement by various national political figures and social-conservative groups. To some degree it worked, though her focus was misdirected with most voters focused on jobs, the economy and federal spending this election.

The Hall strategy involved avoiding any event where voters would have a chance to compare him to the other candidates, while blanketing the district with signs for four different Hall family members all named Hall running for four different offices, hoping to brand "Hall" into voters' subconscious. It was a cynical strategy based on creating name recognition while avoiding media or voter scrutiny.

Hall's campaign slogan belied the hollowness of his campaign: "Just vote Hall."

Heil and Hartline believed voters were smart and wanted to talk about issues. They went to the forums. Hall bet that in a crowded field, needing only a plurality, he could win by finding enough low-information voters who vote based on whose yard signs they see the most. With four Halls running for office, voters saw lots of Hall yard signs.

The Hartline and Heil strategies were undermined by the media deciding to virtually ignore the race.

Hall's low-information strategy - hide from voters and hope to win based on name repetition - worked because there were no candidates in the race who had high name recognition. Hall's strategy would have failed utterly if there had been a candidate with name recognition based on actual accomplishment in the public eye rather than mere repetition of a common, memorable last name - or if media had not abdicated its duty to properly cover the race and inform the electorate.

The Tennessee Republican Party's Failure:
The Tennessee GOP tried early on to recruit a wealthy candidate to run against Cooper. When that failed, the party took a hands-off stance, doing nothing to try to narrow the field from 11 down to four or five candidates who both had a realistic chance to win and fit the electorate's mood on the issues.

With 11 candidates in the race, the TV news decided it easier to just not cover the race. Too many candidates, can't cover 'em all - so they covered none of them.

Just one example: WKRN taped a long interview on healthcare reform with Hartline in the spring, to air on their Sunday morning politics show, then canceled the segment rather than have to cover the rest of the candidates.

Had the Tennessee GOP worked early to shrink the field, perhaps by encouraging some of the obvious 2nd-tier candidates to run for local office instead, the media would have found it easy enough to cover the race.

But, no.

And so the GOP nominee is a guy who can't raise money, is in trouble with the FEC, and who avoids events and forums that candidates typically do.

Democrats could not have picked a better candidate to face Jim Cooper.

Bill Hobbs was the Communication Director for the Jeff Hartline campaign.

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