Basic Instincts: Willard’s Axiom Redux: Not Always About Money
By J. Michael Willard
I call it Willard’s axiom of elections. It should be as obvious as rainwater but generally it isn’t. It goes like this: It’s not about how much money you spend, but how effectively you spend it
This is a blanket observation after being in the political and consumer marketing trenches for four decades. The same holds true for any endeavor where dollars are waged to win hearts and minds.
This Florida primary election brought this home with the sudden impact of walking into a clear glass patio door on a Labor Day while our senses were feasting on burgers on a grill.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a black son of a bus driver, defied every public opinion survey and captured the Democratic nomination for governor, thereby cutting like a switchblade through the butter of conventional wisdom.
With — and i assume — others, I had to swallow my pride and confess I went for false pragmatism over my thumping heart. I voted for the lady Gwen Graham. She seemed a nice, qualified — though slightly boring — choice.
Just as I was about to zero in on marking Gillum on the ballot, an etherial voice whispered in my ear, “You idiot. Don’t throw your vote away. The guy is lucky to land in third.”
Hence, instead of being a clairvoyant mastermind of the improbable, I was just another guy at the two buck window putting my money on the odds-on favorite with a pedigree.
After all, she had the name, and was the daughter of a former governor and senator, and she had the money, as did several other contestants, including three millionaires and a Big Daddy Billionaire.
It seems only Gillum, 39,, who was elected to a local office when he graduated from college and just kept on being elected to other offices, was the only rag man of the club. He wore that cover story like a favorite old sweater with patches on the elbow.
We learned shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday evening he was about to pull off an upset victory not by tossing money around but with grassroots energy and — as important — that compelling narrative.
That narrative — other than humble Lincoln-esque beginnings — also had to do with fair wages, fair housing, fair health care, fair this, fair that and a campaign done to a fare-thee-well — though few noticed.
But he’s a socialist some will say. Bernie Sanders campaigned for him. Socialist, Smocialist, I say. Who gives a rat’s behind?
Anyway, he’s not really.
He’s that old label with a new coat of wax, a progressive, which is gaining currency these days with voters turned off by Trump-ism which — even without the blatant corruption — is cannibalism of America’s values.
However, listen to vintage Trump on Gillum the day after:
“…not only did Congressman Ron DeSantis easily win the Republican Primary, but his opponent in November is his biggest dream.. a failed Socialist Mayor named Andrew Gillum who has allowed crime & many other problems to flourish in his city…”
Ho-hum. We’ve heard this story, generally it had the words immgrants, criminals and rapists in it. Same old dog whistle in the wee hours of the morning.
But, back to my premise that it is not how much money is spent in a campaign, but how effectively it is spent, a thought that is heresy to my colleagues in the political consulting business.
It all goes back 35 years ago when a million dollars was a lot of money. I managed to help spend $13 million in a US Senate race in a state with only two million citizens of which 400,000 voted.
We won by the hair of our chin-y-chin-chins.
In retrospect, the long-ago campaign was won in the trenches and not on the airwaves with expensive media buys. We outsmarted the other guy. The media deluge was like adding Coca-Cola to good whiskey — not necessary.
I am also reminded of my old boss, Senate Leader Robert Byrd’s first run for the US Senate in 1958. He campaign by auto in tandem with his colleague Sen. Jennings Randolph.
They both won and spent a grand total of $50,000 between them. Ah, for the good old days.