In California—a massive state with a pricey, fragmented media market and spotty voter participation—sometimes it pays to run a creative, out-of-the-box campaign.
Last winter, Vivek Viswanathan decided to run for California state treasurer. Then he decided to run across California. Literally run. From Sacramento to the Mexican border.
At first glance, neither decision would seem like a particularly good idea.
To become the state’s next chief money manager, Viswanathan—a 31 year old who has never campaigned for office, lacks broad name recognition and vows not to take money from corporations or political action committees—needs to introduce himself to over 18 million registered voters in 58 counties. Then he’ll need to convince them that he’s the best fit for a job that few have given much thought. He’ll also need to elbow aside Fiona Ma, a well-established fellow Democrat who has been gathering endorsements and raising cash since May of 2016.
As for that other race—625 miles, mostly through the sun-scorched Central Valley where running trails are scarce—that sounds pretty hard too.
But sometimes it pays to be creative with your messaging. That’s especially true in California, a massive state with a pricey, fragmented media market and spotty voter participation. In the governor’s race alone, the top candidates have raised over $50 million to broadcast their messages. Even so, 40 percent of likely voters say they haven’t paid attention to the campaign, says a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles poll. For little-known candidates, trying to campaign statewide when you’re not already elected, famous or wealthy can be an uphill battle.
Even for a marathon runner with glow-in-the-dark sneakers.
Viswanathan says the time is right for a different type of campaign, one not centered around spending “week after week, month after month, calling wealthy people” to raise money.
“I felt there has to be more to it than that, even in a state as big as California,” he said. “Especially this year…when people are more awake to what’s going on…maybe I should do it a different way and start running.”
He’s had some success. He’s raised roughly $200,000 in small contributions and recently earned the endorsement of the San Jose Mercury News and East Bay Times editorial boards. Plus, he’s already made it down to Long Beach.
For inspiration Viswanathan cites Floridian Lawton Chiles, who walked from Pensacola to Miami in his 1970 race for U.S. Senate. “Walkin’ Lawton” won. But the big campaign gimmick doesn’t always pan out.
In 1994, Democrat John Garamendi took odd jobs in every California county as part of his “Working for California” gubernatorial campaign. Two decades later, Republican Neel Kashkari spent a week pretending to be homeless in the Central Valley while running against Gov. Brown. Neither became governor, although Garamendi now serves in Congress.
A campaign has to be about more than some “cute trick,” said Larry Gerston, political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University. “Unless you’re that kind of person who can attach him or herself to a particularly salient issue and ride that issue, it’s going to be very difficult to overcome the clutter.”
Gayle McLaughlin thinks she might be that kind of person. As mayor of Richmond, she helped build a coalition of progressives to challenge the political influence of the city’s biggest employer, Chevron. Now she’s running for lieutenant governor as a socialist with no party affiliation but the backing of progressive third parties, Democratic Socialist organization and Our Revolution, a network of veterans from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Despite no major party backing and limited resources, McLaughlin said she hopes to build a “statewide movement” by tapping into enthusiastic political organizations and “connecting all the various progressive groups and statewide unions…It’s right in line with what Bernie was doing.”
Social media also neutralizes an obstacle that has stymied nontraditional campaigns, she said: a lack of news coverage. Her campaign’s Facebook page routinely gets more clicks, likes, and comments than those of any of her better financed challengers.
Graeme Boushey, a UC Irvine professor, is skeptical that clicks translate to success at the ballot box. “There is a fetish of technology,” he said, “but what matters at the end of the day is votes.”
And in primary elections, when most voters are “brick-and-mortar, high-turnout” partisans, candidates without major endorsements and third-party campaigns face what he called “a very high barrier.”
For down-ballot races, candidates have to perform double duty: introduce voters to who you are and explain the job you want.
“I could go ask a thousand people on the street who the controller is and one person, maybe two, would know…let alone what they do,” said Konstantinos Roditis, a Republican running to be state controller.
For the record, it’s Betty Yee, a Democrat. But the relative obscurity of the position actually levels the playing field, said Roditis: “Incumbency doesn’t make as big a difference…a lot of people don’t know her.”
Viswanathan jokes that his race to become state treasurer sometimes feels like a school student council campaign: “The only people who care are my personal friends and Fiona Ma’s.”
Still, many candidates running for statewide office face this “Catch 22″: The press won’t pay attention until they poll well and raise a lot of money. But they can’t register in the polls or fundraise until the media pays attention.
Alison Hartson, one of 32 candidates running for U.S. Senate, says she’s seen this phenomenon in recent public opinion surveys: Voters are asked to pick among the top two leading candidates or “someone else.”
Then, she said, press reports declare that “‘the top two candidates are Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de León: clearly these are the two candidates that California wants.’”
Instead, she’s tried to grab the public’s attention in other ways.
Earlier this month, she released a video about contributions the telecom giant AT&T made to the two leading U.S. Senate candidates. The media needs to cover “all kinds of corruption, not just Trump or Russia or boobs,” she says in the video, over images of Vladimir Putin and the pornographic actress and filmmaker Stormy Daniels.
Prior campaign videos hadn’t been getting much attention, she said, so decided to make one that was “a little more spunky, a little more fun, and see if it catches on.”
“We’re just trying every single thing at our disposal,” she said. “And having fun with it.”