Buzz has been strong among DFL insiders for a while that something had to change in Al Franken’s U.S. Senate campaign. Now that a new staff has arrived and the campaign appears to be changing course, it’s time for a look back on where Franken has gone wrong.
Conventional wisdom says Franken’s woes are related to the back taxes and sexually explicit writings. But there’s more than that: Franken’s biggest challenge is the burn rate of his campaign and blunders by an inexperienced staff and candidate.
In modern U.S. Senate races, the basics matter: money, message and media. So far Franken is at a disadvantage on all three.
While successful at raising money, Franken’s burning it too quickly. Franken has raised more than Coleman, but he also has spent $3 million more than his Republican opponent.
High cost of fundraising
A review of his campaign finance reports shows that Franken is spending too much to raise money.
In the first quarter of 2008, Franken raised $2.1 million and spent almost $260,000 on direct mail fundraising and $144,000 on telemarketing fundraising. And in the fourth quarter of 2007, he spent nearly $500K by mail and another $100,000 by phone to raise $1.8 million. Those numbers are high compared with other candidates. And they don’t include outlays he has made for staff, office space, etc.
In Colorado, Rep. Mark Udall, who is running in the open Senate seat, has spent only 62 percent of his contributions and has as much cash on hand, despite raising $4 million less than Franken, who has raised $11.6 million.
In Maine, where Democrats are hoping to knock off incumbent Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Democratic challenger Tom Allen has retained 66 percent of total contributions.
Franken has retained only 36 percent of receipts to date.
Patty Wetterling had the same problem in her Senate and House campaigns. In the end, if your return isn’t high enough, you won’t have the cash to spend on media to compete.
As to paid media, Franken started his campaign with a good ad featuring his third grade teacher, Mrs. Moline. But that only put him on the radar. Since then he has not had nor spent the resources to deliver the message he needed to keep him competitive in the polls. His ads have been too traditional – and for a non-traditional candidate like Franken, that strategy won’t defeat an incumbent. Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone didn’t win with “traditional” ads.
Franken’s ad from a few weeks ago is a good example: He tried to make a big deal out of former members of Congress becoming lobbyists – a bad ad when the economy, energy and Iraq are the top three issues on voter’s minds.
Nor has he effectively used the press. His work in this area has been reactive and lacking in policy positions contrasting him with Coleman. Franken didn’t hold his first policy-focused news conference until last week. So far, Franken has been too dependent on talk-radio-like talking points when dealing with reporters rather than thoughtful and easily communicated points on policy, Iraq and the source of Coleman’s campaign contributions.
In order to subvert what were predictable attacks, Team Franken should have released early in the campaign anything and everything Franken said, wrote or thought that could be used against him. My advice would have been a website called “AlsBadStuff.com.”
Franken’s team was ill-prepared for the bad news – and that’s a terrible piece of political malpractice. If Franken’s early staff were doctors or lawyers, their licenses would be in jeopardy.
Almost everyone agrees 2008 should be a major Democratic year, and despite his more recent moderation, Coleman was ripe for defeat. But Franken hasn’t been able to land a punch.
Friday: How Franken can still turn his campaign around.