Winning Rural Elections: Parades!

A week before the 2008 Iowa caucuses I drove 200 miles in a day doorknocking for Obama. We’d long before saturated the easy turf like Mason City, and all that was left was the tiny towns and farms. I wasn’t the only door knocker on a mission impossible- Carl and a few others got back to the Mason City campaign office even later than me. In that 200 mile day I’d made only a handful of contacts and doubt I moved more than a vote or two at most.

The now classic democratic strategy of “door knock ’til you drop” works great in low turnout predominately dem leaning urban areas where the doors are less than a hundred feet apart. But out here, it’s an exercise in frustration. My legislative district’s (MN 22A) largest towns don’t even have 5000 population, and over half the district’s population lives in towns of less than 1000 or in the country. And given that the district is nearly a hundred miles across, any candidate would need to put in a lot of those 200 mile days trying to door knock the whole district… I doubt a candidate would be able to doorknock the whole district in a year. So do we surrender these rural turfs to the republicans and retreat to the big city?

Hell no!

While rural folks can be hard to get to, they seem to like to get together… Every community has at least one annual celebration as well as 4th of July and other holiday celebrations. And the best attended event is always the parade. In the big cities maybe ten or twenty percent of the population will attend a parade… Out here the whole town AND the whole county or three attend the parades!

Don’t believe me? This is an off year so I’m not doing any parades, so the last few weeks I’ve been making the rounds of the parades out here and taking spectator and participant counts. Couple weeks back I caught the parade in Canby, population two thousand and change. Got a late start counting as I was catching a meeting with Congressmember Peterson, but I counted over 1800 spectators before the parade ended and the crowd scattered. I thus missed a couple blocks of the route and spectators, so clearly the attendance at least equaled the town’s population, plus several hundred parade participants. Next parade I caught was in Lake Benton, pop. 600… Counted 1600 spectators plus over 200 participants, three times the towns population! July 4th I caught two parades, first one in Ruthton (pop. 300 and losing) I counted about 600 spectators and over 200 participants. On to Balaton (pop. 600) and I counted over 1000 spectators and over 200 participants. Clearly, rural parades draw at least the town’s population and often two and even three times that! The Lake Benton, Ruthton, and Balaton parades are in my district and even using the urban campaign benchmark of 20 completed contacts a day it would have taken me nearly 200 days to contact that many voters… If one can’t get to the voters, go where the voters are!

‘Bout now some young campaign worker in the back row is raising his hand and asking “How can you win a voter over when you just pass by them, it takes long personal conversations to win voters over and make them turnout?” Well, parades don’t move that fast, and the better campaigners arrive long before the parade, talk with spectators along the route, and if parade rules permit hand out their literature before, during, and after the parade. But we’re still often dealing with a compressed time frame to communicate to the voter… So how do we get our message across?

Turn on your TV and switch from PBS over to the commercial channels, and watch the ads instead of ignoring them. There isn’t really much of a message- For example even a car ad will use only a few words to state the advantages of a car. And Coke and Pepsi, who have fought a long battle for market share similar to that of the two major parties, have no valid claims as to the advantage of their product to make… They’re both basicly selling flavored water. Watch a while, and you’ll notice that much of the messaging is done with the careful choice of actors, props, and scenes… You won’t see a pickup truck driven around the shopping mall by a little old lady, or an obese toothless teabagger gulping cola.

Thus overt messaging has to be a line or less so the spectators can read it or hear your supporters chant it before you pass them by. Even the choice of parade vehicle is important- my motorcycles with sidecars are a hit in big city parades, especially the swoopy rainbow one. But out here the red, white, and blue motorcycle and sidecar with traditional wire wheels and other styling cues is more effective. And for out here a pickup with traditional wood side boards is even better, I had great successs with one parked at the busiest intersection in Mason City in the days before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Better yet, get a tractor, and preferably a blue or green one… Too bad the republicans took IH’s red and gave red such a bad rep. That’s why I’m shopping for a tractor!

So come next summer your campaign team is making the most of the parade circuit… You arrive early and work the crowd, then astound the parade organizer by asking to be put in the rear of the parade, because you know the parade moves slowest at the back. You’ve got a half block long parade contingent, starting with supporters ahead with lit, flag and banner carriers, kids on trikes and bikes with your campaign signs, a tractor and farm truck or three, pulling farm wagon “floats” with your message. The candidate is working the crowd, and thanks to the slow speed at the back of the parade can speak a sentence or two with interested voters. By the end of parade season you’ve communicated with near every voter instead of wasting all your time trying to doorknock every last door in the district. Come election day, despite a republican base of over 40% of the voters, you win in an upset or at least give the republican candidate the race of his life that will have him reconsidering his teabagger positions.

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