June 2016 Cover Story: The Business of Politics

All Politics is Local

AMANDA MORRISON n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES Republican congressional candidate Elise M. Stefanik speaks on Social Security and Medicare during a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Watertown.

Republican congressional candidate Elise M. Stefanik speaks about Social Security and Medicare during an Aug. 26, 2014, afternoon press conference in Watertown. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

For those who operate In the fast-paced world of political campaigns, securing face time with voters makes all the difference on election day

By Brian Molongoski, NNY Business

As New York’s Congressional primary
elections were kicking into gear in June 2014, Anthony Pileggi’s day would start somewhere around 5:30 a.m.

From Glens Falls, he’d drive a little less than two hours north to pick up then-candidate Elise M. Stefanik from her home in Willsboro. Ms. Stefanik, at the time, was vying for the GOP nomination to New York’s 21st Congressional District seat, and Mr. Pileggi served as her deputy campaign manager.

From Willsboro, the first stop was Lake Placid, where Ms. Stefanik and her staff would have breakfast with community leaders. By afternoon, the team was in Warren County speaking with community leaders, followed by dinner in Fulton County with GOP committee officials. Then they had to go west. By midnight, Ms. Stefanik and her staff would reach Watertown, sleep, and meet with locals the following morning. Then it was back north with stops in St. Lawrence County, a journey east with a stop in Plattsburgh, and finally ending at the starting point in Willsboro.

At the height of Ms. Stefanik’s campaign, Mr. Pileggi said two-day marathons like these weren’t abnormal. This was business as usual, business that needed to cover the roughly 15,114 square miles within the state’s largest congressional district, which is home to more than 700,000 residents dispersed among remote towns, mountains and farmland that stretches for miles. And meeting as many of them as possible was the name of the game.

“That meant we had to get her around the district ad nauseam,” Mr. Pileggi said, adding that one of the key principles of the campaign was familiarizing voters with Ms. Stefanik by talking to them face-to-face, despite the sprawling geography of the district.

Come the following November, Ms. Stefanik won the general election with 53 percent of the vote, securing not only a seat in Congress, but a spot in history as the youngest woman to do so thus far.

That victory, Mr. Pileggi said, was the result of embracing “retail politics,” which involves going door-to-door and meeting voters individually. Similarly, Mr. Pileggi said, it’s the same way businesses have to devote time to their customers in order to rake in revenue. Only in political campaigns, votes are the true currency that pay dividends.

On a macro scale, the difference between a political campaign and a business is fairly indistinct. Mr. Pileggi said both are comprised of mostly the same components — the vision, the strategy, the budget, the staff. The process of building a campaign from the ground up generally follows the same path to creation.

In Ms. Stefanik’s case, a first-time run for Congress meant pulling together a core staff of nine people, a veritable army of volunteers, and raising money to sustain the duration of an arduous campaign that included a primary contest against Matthew A. Doheny, who was making his third bid for the seat.

By the end of her 2014 campaign, Ms. Stefanik had raised roughly $1.95 million and spent around $1.92 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In Upstate New York, veteran political advisor Michael Schell knows this better than most. Now retired, Mr. Schell has decades of experience advising New York state politicians, including a stint as senior advisor to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

From the get-go, Mr. Schell said the political field needs to be analyzed like it’s a marketplace. Candidates need a strong understanding of what voters are looking for and how it caters to a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. From there, it’s building a team, getting some money, and blasting a message, all while maintaining a budget.

Mr. Schell said the more local political campaigns get, the more imperative retail politics become. Candidates running for supervisor, mayor, city council and even Assembly, Mr. Schell said, are expected to be seen in person.

“It’s certainly one of the most important elements, and it’s certainly difficult to win if you’re not out there pounding the pavement every day,” he said.

Mr. Schell said this market analysis approach is particularly important in the north country, where voters tend to be more persuadable. The reason being, he added, is that north country voters tend focus more on the candidate’s persona rather than the party with which he or she is aligned, even though a majority of the Northern New York population is registered Republican.

Thus, candidates who spend more time connecting with voters, either in person or digitally, have a higher chance of winning an election, Mr. Schell said.

While a digital presence is important for all elections, Mr. Schell said, it’s even more important for bigger campaigns that cover more ground. He said he was first exposed to the power of social media during Mr. Spitzer’s 2006 campaign, and he credits Mr. Spitzer’s win with quickly adapting to online tools and hiring a younger generation of staffers familiar with how those tools work.

But if building a digital presence from scratch is too much to handle for one campaign, this is where consulting firms enter the picture.

Leonardo Alcivar, communications coordinator for Ms. Stefanik’s campaign, has been working with the congresswoman since her first campaign. He also works as director of client strategy for Targeted Victory, one of the largest Republican consulting firms in the country. Though Ms. Stefanik does not use Targeted Victory, as Mr. Alcivar works with her on a volunteer basis, his firm helps develop digital campaign strategies and works with many candidates at the congressional, gubernatorial and presidential levels.

Mr. Alcivar said a strong online identity can be just as important as in-person contact with voters. Sometimes, if needed, he said it’s best to leave the development of digital strategies to a third party.

“When it comes to a digital presence, it is often better to allow for outside experts who have the ability to scale upward and have the tools that have been proven to work rather than trying to recreate the wheel in house,” Mr. Alcivar said.

“At a moment in history when all the eyeballs are online, every campaign should devote significant resources to a digital platform to drive fundraising, to drive social media communication, to drive messaging, and in some cases to drive ticketing and public speaking events.”

Mr. Schell has similar thoughts, noting that more local campaigns for a seat on the state Legislature also make use of digital consulting firms, which work closely with the state’s Democratic and Republican campaign committees of both houses.

While businesses and political campaigns parallel in a number of ways, Mr. Alcivar said there is one stark difference between the two — time.

Whereas businesses are built to go on for as long as possible, the lifespan of a campaign is finite. Come November of an election year, it’s over, and the results speak for themselves. Smart campaigns, Mr. Alcivar said, need to work backward. Plan for Election Day first, and then set a timetable from there. He noted that it’s about using the limited timeframe as an asset and not a liability, so that means taking advantage of every minute possible, especially when the competition isn’t looking.

In Ms. Stefanik’s case, Mr. Alcivar said it was about making extensive trips across the 21st District, going door to door and meeting constituents in person at a time when political activity was at a lull.

“She used that quiet time when nobody was paying attention to build a grassroots presence that was unmatched by other candidates in the race,” he says. “Building a grassroots presence on the ground for any campaign is vital at the outset.”

Mr. Alcivar added that this plays into the “customers first” attitude of a business. A solid relationship with constituents, he says, becomes groundwork needed for each part of the campaign to work, from the digital to the fundraising teams. Without it, success could be harder to grasp.

“Any good campaign will listen to and learn from voters,” he said. “That information then allows for a campaign to build and make informed decisions about how to spend resources, where to spend time and reach voters who might not otherwise participate in the process. If you don’t invest in that early, just like if you don’t invest in R&D early, you won’t be able to monetize the campaign.”

Mr. Alcivar and Mr. Pileggi agree that high above all other components of a campaign is the vision of the founder. And depending on what that vision is, it can make or break a campaign.

For Ms. Stefanik’s first run two years ago, Mr. Pileggi said it ultimately boiled down to her desire to connect with voters individually and the commitment to traveling thousands of miles over the course of a year for their feedback.

Looking back on 2014, Mr. Pileggi recalls naysayer arguments that driving around, knocking on hundreds of doors in a district as big as NY-21 would be a poor way to run a campaign. But Ms. Stefanik’s campaign did it anyway.
“And it paid off,” Mr. Pileggi said.

Brian Molongoski is a Johnson Newspapers reporter who covers politics for the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at 661-2347 or bmolongoski@wdt.net