Reflections on Malik Rahim's bid for Congress in Louisiana
Malik Rahim, the Green Party Candidate for the 2nd Louisiana Congressional District, did not win in the election held December 6, 2008. In fact, Malik finished a distant third of four, behind the Republican and Democratic Party candidates. I was the campaign manager.
Although the results were disappointing, we learned many things. The most important lesson was that nothing replaces the hard work of relationship-building and organizing. Although Malik's votes were low in the district as a whole, the campaign finished second in 32 precincts (beating Jefferson in some and Cao in others), and he received more than eight percent of the votes in 45 precincts (with a few precincts higher than 20%). It is no coincidence that the precincts we did well in were precincts where active Green Party members organized their friends and neighbors.
Below, I'm presenting my thoughts on the outcome: political context on the race, campaign results (including what we did well and what we did not do well), and the lessons I extrapolate from this experience.
After reading my analysis, I hope supporters-- whether in the District or out-of-state-- will take seriously the old adage: "Don't mourn, organize!" Building a political party can help us to redouble our efforts and share our challenges and victories. We can build a challenge to the two-party duopoly based on war and profit and build a party that truly represents our values-- the values that Malik's campaign represented.
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Campaign Manager, Committee to Elect Malik Rahim
Saturday's election was a mix of low turnout and a very high level of polarization along race and class lines around the question of reelecting Bill Jefferson or replacing him. Our volunteers were told by Jefferson supporters that Malik's campaign would help elect a Republican. Joseph Cao's supporters screamed that we were going to help re-elect a criminal (Bill Jefferson is under indictment for bribery). Those that voted felt like the stakes were high. Our candidacy was ignored by the local media—including our only local newspaper, the Times Picayune, who had previously sang praises of Malik and Commong Ground-- deemed marginal. The Times Picayune heavily supported Joseph Cao.
The numbers show that working class and poor African-American voters were loyal to Bill Jefferson, in an expression of determination to preserve a concrete symbol of Black political power in the city. Whites (even white "liberal" Democrats), Vietnamese, and middle-class black voters, mobilized to cast a vote against corruption by selecting former independent, Joseph Cao. Desire to unseat Jefferson was so high in white and middle-class areas that signs that simply said "Anyone but Jefferson" even appeared in the neutral ground.
The underlying story of this election- and that of the 4th Congressional District in Northwest Louisiana-- is that the Republican Governor and Secretary of State moved the election date to a time favoring Republican candidates. In both cases, there was low voter turnout, and in both cases Republicans won. In the New Orleans area, a low voter turnout (less than 70,000 voters) gave Joseph Cao (a newly minted Republican who took thousands of dollars in Republican contributions but downplayed his new party affiliation, including in his literature) a decisive advantage over Jefferson. Now the 2nd Congressional District- a "majority-minority" district- has the first Vietnamese-American Congressman, and perhaps the only Republican of any "majority-minority" district in the United States.
The results were undoubtedly disappointing: 1880 people cast their ballots for Malik- just under 3% of voters. Although low in the district as a whole, the campaign finished second in 32 precincts (beating Jefferson in some and Cao in others), and received more than eight percent of the votes in 45 precincts. With focused outreach (mailers, door knocking, follow up phone calls and emails to supporters in those areas), it is possible that Greens could turn the top ten "hot" precincts solidly Green in future elections. Malik favored much better in Orleans Parish than Jefferson Parish, and somewhat better on the East Bank of New Orleans than in Algiers. This was a surprise to most of us, since many of Malik's family and some key volunteers were from Algiers and the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.
Canvassing worked. The campaign door knocked 1600 households primarily in the Bywater, Marigny, St. Claude, 7th Ward/St. Bernard and parts of Mid City. We dropped literature at least 6,000 additional households in the Bywater, Marigny, St. Claude, St. Roch, 7th Ward/ St. Bernard, Mid City, and various Uptown neighborhoods.
Door knocking and real conversations with voters happened in every precinct where Malik got over 15% of the vote. Social relationships were present- and leveraged (people made concreted asks of their friends and neighbors)- in those precincts as well. Six of the top eight reporting precincts had local resident supporters that canvassed and/or encouraged their neighbors to get active with the campaign. Neighborhood infrastructure worked well where there was both a committed neighborhood captain and a critical mass of volunteers or supporters.
The treasurer kept our filings on time, the media coordinator did excellent advertising work, and our electronic communications coordinator built an excellent web site and online presence. Sign builders did an enormous amount of work affixing signs to reclaimed wood and wire stakes. Social events worked well. The two larger campaign parties were organized with less than a week notice and had 75 and 45 motivated attendees, respectively. Volunteers also enjoyed the sign making party where they were able to hand paint large reused signs and silkscreen additional lawn signs.
Green veteran campaigners mobilized to help us on the ground in New Orleans. Special thanks to Pat LaMarche of Maine and Pete Karas of Wisconsin. Over 100 others participated in the remote phone banking system, calling district voters. Thanks to Marnie Glickman of Green Change, Hugh Esco of the Georgia Green Party, and the dedicated phone banking volunteers.
Lastly, the national fundraising strategy leveraged over $20,000 in national support, mostly in small donations, to meet the campaigns' overall fundraising goal of $30,000.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
Voter confusion worked against us. Some thought that after two elections Bill Jefferson had won reelection. In the week leading up to December 6, 25% of the voters we spoke to didn't know Dec. 6 was an election day. Moreover, the campaign's focus was interrupted by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav with most of September and part of October lost. The on-again, off again hurt us. When people didn't see signs out in late October and voters didn't see Malik on the November ballot, rumors flew that Malik dropped out of the race. It was difficult to communicate amidst the presidential contest, but we could have done better to communicate to voters.
Our early planning was backward. We planned based on what resources we had or anticipated at the first few campaign meetings, while we should have planned from our desired results on election day backward. This would have cued us in on the need for poll watchers in every precinct we thought we could win, sign holders at major intersections near polling places with heavy driving, and election day voting card ("ballot") distribution in precincts with those who tend to walk to the polls. Perhaps we would have worked more systematically to provide or refer voter transportation to polling places.
We were unable to recruit key positions to fill out the basic campaign infrastructure, including a local volunteer coordinator, canvassing coordinator (the campaign manager took on this work) area coordinators for most of Uptown and the Jefferson Parish precincts (most of this work was left undone), and a scheduler for Malik (he scheduled himself with consultation with the Media Coordinator and Campaign Manger). Recorded "robocalls" helped us identify out of service phone numbers for our phone bankers but we could have spent more time refining the messaging for our target audience and improving the sound quality of the recordings.
The campaign over-relied on Malik's name recognition with Common Ground and conflated the positive feedback we were getting from potential voters with turn-out to the polls and votes on election day. For example, we overestimated the enthusiasm in the Bywater (a diverse section of the Upper Ninth Ward), where nearly 30% of the doors knocked and 2 of 3 calls placed were saying they would vote for Malik on election day. While we did get 3 of the 4 highest percentage precincts and some of the highest absolute votes in the Bywater, some voters never made it to the polls and we failed to win those precincts. Perhaps most importantly, we grossly overestimated Malik's organic base in Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward, assuming positive name recognition in those areas would translate to levers pulled on election day. While we did implement a ratings system for voter identification, we lacked comparables for Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward because the campaign was highly decentralized, with those in charge of Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward dismissing the importance of door-to-door canvassing.
We should have organized for six months to a year in advance of this election. The candidate and campaign waited far too long to begin serious campaigning. Once we did, we could have had clearer priorities for the campaign and better time management of the candidate. Once financial resources flooded in during the second half of November, it was too late to hire field organizers so we put most of those resources into advertising.
The campaign could have done much more- and much earlier- to recruit volunteers and to secure endorsements of prominent local supporters. Endorsements of real people-if leveraged- could have translated to votes on election day. More volunteers would have meant more canvassing and outreach capacity. By contrast, the media blitz- radio, electronic billboards, tv, and newspaper ads- helped moralize the base but didn't seem to translate to votes.
The Green Party has a long way to grow in New Orleans and Louisiana. In hindsight, we lacked enough critical infrastructure or boots on the ground win this election. We needed a lot more to overcome the popular "horse race" mentality of the media and voting public that has odds on the Republican or Democrat. Joseph Cao's candidacy was a perfect storm that rained on our parade. Our volunteer base was 50 people at its broadest, and should have been ten times that. We also needed a much larger core campaign staff working on the election. There is no quick fix to our mistakes: the answer is patient party-building, relationship-building, and support of the social movements between electoral cycles.
Precincts 20% and over:9-14 (Bywater): 25.6%
5-6 (Back of Treme): 25.0%
4-6 (Mid City): 23.6%
9-12 (Bywater): 20.3%
Precincts with percentages between 15 and 19.9%: (4)5-11 (Mid City)
8-1 (Marigny rectangle)
8-4 (St. Roch)
Notes1 The AFL-CIO and some nonprofit leaders also supported Jefferson in an attempt to hold onto a Democratic Party district.
2 Cao ran a sophisticated campaign that relied heavily upon Helena Moreno (Jefferson's opponent in the Democratic primary) supporters and other Democratic Party factions hostile to Jefferson, and downplayed his Republican Party affiliation—his party was not included on his literature.
3 New Orleans has a functional illiteracy rate of over 30% and many people depend on voting cards and/or candidates' ballot numbers to assist their voting.
4 The campaign received over 10 phone calls asking for transportation on election day.
5 Everyone hates robocalls, but they seem to be effective. I received 7 robocalls from Cao supporters, none from Jefferson. I received one human phone call from the Cao campaign.