Delaware politicians going directly to the people

With no dominant TV market, First State is home to retail campaigning

The News Journal

August 1, 2010

HARRINGTON — Michele Rollins, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House and self-described “city girl,” was out of her element.

Seated on rough bleachers encircling a small arena covered by a mixture of sawdust and manure, she was looking to buy a pig.

The heat of the day had finally broken at the Delaware State Fair on Thursday night, but the five-foot box fans were still on high, mixing the smell of livestock with the soothing breeze.

Dressed in khakis and a yellow shirt with pearls drooping from her ears, Rollins asked the spectators nearby for help picking a pig.

After a few minutes, the conversation moved from pigs to the nation’s tax structure.

Ronnie Carter, 60, of Felton, had a few questions for the first-time candidate. How would she lower taxes? What would she do for small business?

Politicians at the fair are nothing new to Carter.

“I don’t talk to a lot of them,” he said. “But I like the way she talks.”

A little later, Mary Martin, 64, of Georgetown, had stopped to talk to John Carney, a Democratic candidate for the House, while waiting for the rain to stop. They discussed the weather.

A seasoned veteran of the state fair who has run for statewide office three times before, Carney knows most people don’t want to talk politics.

“People want to look you in the eyes, measure you up and see if they can trust you,” Carney said.

It’s politics Delaware style, and the annual state fair is an example of “retail politics,” when a candidate sells herself directly to the voter. In even-numbered years, there are more campaign buttons than chickens in Harrington as candidates and their volunteers work the crowds who come for fried Oreos and funnel cake.

With no television station based here, large-scale media campaigns are less common in Delaware than in bigger states like Pennsylvania and California. Instead, candidates take to the streets, filling their summers attending every parade and festival from Arden to Zoar.

Now it appears political campaigns across the country may be taking a lesson from the one-on-one approach perfected here.

As voters tune out television ads, and movements like tea parties grow, retail politics is making a return. The shift, observers say, could lead to elections with fewer attack ads and 30-second sound bites.

The peak of state fair politics was Thursday, Governor’s Day, when the night was capped with a dinner overlooking the racetrack featuring the who’s who of Delaware politics.

Rollins skipped the dinner to attend the auction and nearly jumped out of her slip-on shoes when a wayward pig ran at her.

She ultimately gave up buying a pig, instead purchasing a 1,237-pound shorthorn steer named Cotton Eye Joe for $1.20 a pound. She donated the steer back to the Future Farmers of America and 4-H.

Had she spent the $1,484.40 on a television advertisement, it wouldn’t replace having 1,000 auction attendees who saw her jump with excitement as she was announced as the high bidder.

The goal was the same for the other candidates who flocked to the fair: a few minutes of face time with thousands of potential voters.

“It really brings the whole state together,” Gov. Jack Markell said as he tried to make his way to his booth in the grandstand.

Making an impression

Lorraine Hamilton, 62, of Magnolia, was in a hurry Thursday at the fair, but she took a few moments when U.S. Senate candidate Chris Coons walked up to introduce himself. She didn’t know much about Coons and listened as he explained his basic platform.

A campaign staffer slipped Hamilton a brochure, and she dropped it into the bag with the rest of her swag and pamphlets.

“It does matter that he would come down to the state fair to meet people,” Hamilton said, adding that the New Castle County executive handled himself “very well” in front of the downstate crowd.

The encounter was only a minute, but Hamilton left with an impression.

Those fleeting interactions are the stuff democracy is made of, said Samuel Hoff, political science professor at Delaware State University.

“It’s much easier to interact at the state fair where you have everything from farm animals to rides,” Hoff said.

Conversations sometimes delve into politics and policy, but most of the time the topics are more benign.

House Minority Leader Richard Cathcart, R-Middletown, said he always knocked on doors with the knowledge that most people want a candidate to go away as quickly as possible.

“People don’t want to talk to you, 9 out of 10 times,” Cathcart said. “But they remember that you’re there. It’s that 90 seconds that you’re in front of them that you have to make an impression. You get a point for just showing up.”

Why retail politics here?

Being the “small wonder” has made Delaware a bastion of retail politics.

The state’s population of 885,000 — of whom 619,000 are registered voters — makes reaching out possible. Add the high price of television advertisements in the Philadelphia market, and you have a prescription for door-to-door campaigns.

As he drove from the fair Wednesday back to Wilmington, Republican strategist Don Mell said it helps that a candidate can traverse the state in a couple of hours and appear in all three counties.

Television advertisements are simply too expensive even for most statewide candidates, Mell said.

“Because we’re so small, there is a larger concentration of people. You can do that kind of campaigning,” Mell said.

State Sen. Nancy Cook, D-Kenton, who has held office since 1974, said there is an expectation for politicians to knock on doors here.

When she first took office, Cook said, the districts didn’t change much and candidates faced the same voters every time. They grew to expect that candidates would knock on their door at least once every year, she said.

Now, with growth in her district, Cook said she occasionally encounters people who are surprised — but they’re all from New Jersey.

“They’ve never had people interact with them,” Cook said.

Big states differ

Joe and Roe Donofrio of Smyrna are growing accustomed to meeting their elected officials.

The couple moved from New Jersey in 2004 and were a little shocked the first time they met a gubernatorial candidate on the street.

Thursday, while catching some shade by the Dover Building at the fair, state Sen. Colin Bonini approached the couple to tell them about his bid for state treasurer. Bonini noticed Roe Donofrio’s autism awareness lanyard and struck up a conversation.

“In New Jersey, they stump but they’re not so friendly,” Joe Donofrio said. “It’s a whole different ball game here.”

Delaware is more like Iowa, where presidential candidates have already begun on-the-ground campaigning for 2012, said David P. Redlawsk, political science professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

The small populations and expectation of meeting politicians make fairs and festivals in both states more receptive to candidates. Redlawsk is writing a book on why Iowa has held onto its position as the first state of presidential primaries titled “Why Iowa?: Sequential Elections, Reform and U.S. Presidential Nominations.”

Unlike Iowa, Delaware is small and easy to cross, Redlawsk said.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Redlawsk said.

Other factors make retail politics tougher in larger states.

“If you were in Pennsylvania and you were a gubernatorial candidate, you couldn’t go to every peach festival in the state,” Mell said.

There’s no way to campaign in some states without heavy reliance on mass media.

“In a big state, by and large the campaign is about getting on the air,” said Stephen K. Medvic, government professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “What they’re doing now is raising money because they’re going to need million of dollars.”

But big states also are seeing a resurgence in retail politics, Medvic said. The advent of DVRs and Tivos, plus years of being bombarded by campaign ads, has led many voters to tune out television spots, he said.

Candidates also have realized that traditional media campaigns were failing to get people out to vote, Medvic said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s successful grassroots effort in his 2002 campaign to get voters to the poll was widely noticed, Medvic said. Many candidates facing voters with anti-incumbent sentiments are eager to try a more personal approach.

“Political scientists and most political observers kind of applaud the fact that candidates are going back to a ground game,” Medvic said.

Changing tone of discussion

When the sun set over the fair and the lights of the midway got brighter, U.S. House candidate Glen Urquhart, Rollins’ Republican primary opponent, was still working the crowd.

He met a group at the Greenwood Mennonite School booth, where they sell boxed dinners and homemade pies. Dressed in his signature red collared shirt, Urquhart shook hands with the cashier and greeted the cooks.

The Mennonite School constituency has proved to hold a lot of political sway in Sussex County, a longtime stronghold of Sen. Thurman Adams, a Democrat who died just over a year ago after serving 37 years in the Senate.

Even as Urquhart’s and Rollins’ paths crisscrossed, they both agreed it keeps campaigns more civil.

The likelihood of talking to the same people or candidates seeing each other face-to-face changes the tone of a campaign, Medvic said.

“Candidates and surrogates have to go out and do all these fish fries and state fairs and they have to face voters in person. They’re probably not going to be able to get away with the shallow rhetoric that advertisements employ,” Medvic said. “It’s harder to play the kind of demonize-the-opponent games. It’s harder to give the 30-second sound bite answer.”

Redlawsk said the candidate and voter interaction benefit both parties. Voters become more informed about the candidates because they have the opportunity to ask questions.

Traditional media campaigns are a one-way street, he said, because the candidate is only pushing information out to the public.

“When the candidates are on the ground, they can have a conversation,” Redlawsk said. “They’re pushing back and forth. Candidates learn something when it’s all over.”