What went wrong for Al Franken?

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. 

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jack Shepard on 08/01/2008 - 06:37 pm.

    But Franken hasn’t been able to land a punch. Just Maybe Jack Shepard can land that KO punch and defeat Senator Norm Coleman if Al Franken can do it himself.

    The campaign of Al Franken may get a miracle from a much lesser known weaker candidate who is so Anti-War and so Pro-Labor that his web site http://www.jackshepardforsenate.com got Senator Norm Coleman to finally after years of hiding his past use of pot to come clean and finally tell the truth.

    Now Jack Shepard is asking when will Norm Coleman come clean and say why he refused to serve his country in Vietnam and how can he be the Senate’s leading Cheerleader of the Iraqi War and he even is now calling for a military attack on Iran.

    Norm Coleman used very strong words to advocate War in Iraq and now he is continuing and championing an American War with Iran, and all this coming from a guy who refused to serve his country in Vietnam.

    Jesse Ventura called Norm Coleman a “Chicken-Hawk” that how I first learned that word.

    Maybe if enough people visit Jack Shepard for Senate web site and learn more about Norm Coleman he may not win his re-elected.

    In the Minnesota GOP U.S. Senate Primary Jack Shepard agrees with Blois Olson WHEN THE ARTICLE ENDS. Almost everyone agrees 2008 should be a major Democratic year and Norm Coleman is ripe for defeat.

  2. Submitted by James Norton on 07/31/2008 - 08:53 pm.

    Piling on, just a bit… What the heck does this even mean?

    “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.”

    Instead of “talk radio” talking points, he needs to use “thoughtful” talking points? Beyond lacking any substantial sourcing (comparing, for example, his Air America rhetoric with his campaign rhetoric), it drags Franken through the gutter of “talk radio” without comprehending or meaningfully engaging what his show was about.

    If you’d ever actually listened to the show (for which I worked as a producer, it should be noted), you would’ve heard him interviewing military veterans, authors of thick books on public policy, respected professors, sitting Senators and Congresspeople, contributors to the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post, climate and health scientists — in short, some of the best-informed and brightest people in the world.

    Moreover, and directly to the point of what was written: Didn’t he just run a major ad pointing out where Coleman’s campaign contributions are coming from, and contrasting that with his own donor base?

    The previous commenter is dead-on correct when he points out that Franken has made a number of high-visibility, media-friendly pushes on policy/issues.

    This doesn’t read like a substantial analysis of Franken’s campaign, it reads like… well, a lot like what you’d expect a Ciresi supporter to write.

    Don’t get me wrong — you can write an intelligent and well-sourced critique of any campaign, Franken’s included. This just isn’t it.

  3. Submitted by Aaron Landry on 07/31/2008 - 07:13 pm.

    I’m a bit surprised, even reading this a second time. David Brauer has a fantastic piece this morning about transparency. He says:

    If an extraordinary case arises and both the writer and editor agree that John or Blois should write about a client or related issue, we will disclose that information in the post.”

    So straight out of the gate you publish what might be considered a factually inaccurate portrayal of the Franken campaign without saying you were a strong Ciresi supporter.

    You say:

    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.

    But last week was not Al’s first policy-focused news conference. He spent the whole July 4th weekend talking about gas prices to the press. He rolled out a Veterans plan to the press months ago. He went on a state-wide “On Your Side” tour about middle-class economy. He had a “Green Jobs Week” a long time ago. All of these things were both policy-focused as well as press functions.

    Yes, I am a staunch partisan in the Senate race, but I have a rather high standard for MinnPost in terms of its research, transparency and accuracy.

  4. Submitted by Jonathan Carter on 07/31/2008 - 02:08 pm.

    Blois this one on the head. If Al can’t find better advisors after preparing for basically six years, what can we expect of his term as senator. Blunder after blunder and six year in finally getting it?

  5. Submitted by John Olson on 08/01/2008 - 06:46 am.

    Jonathan is right…a candidate is only as good as the hired help around him or her.

    But if the party wants their candidate to be successful, don’t they have an obligation to offer their expertise as well in an effort to win? Franken was probably not vetted very well–if at all–and a significant segment of DFLers are lukewarm about his race. Some DFLers seem to be so busy bad-mouthing Al behind his back that they have forgotten that there is this guy named “Norm” out there.

    As to the disclosure debate: if purity is the goal, there will not be ANYONE writing posts for this website. Everyone has conflicts of interest somewhere. Brauer’s wife works in a law firm that prepared a report on the 35W bridge. Big deal. It wasn’t worth a mention every darn day that was going on.

    Did the late Tim Russert have to disclose his own personal politics in order to do his job? (No, but we pretty much knew where they came from.) Does Bob Schieffer? No. I think most know where Stephanopoulos is coming from and his background. And the list goes on. This concern over “transparency” and “disclosures” is going way, way, way overboard. Try this: does Jim Cramer of CNBC have to disclose every single stock he owns in order to do his show? No, of course not. Pete Najarian? Nope. Do they make a comment here or there that they own a particular stock? Yes, but they don’t tell you how much of it or what their position is.

    Regardless of the author’s clients, job history, fast food preferences, type and breed of pet(s) owned, etc., each of us has the ability–and the right–to determine for ourselves if we think that a given post is on target or not. And the comments will reflect that in here. MinnPost has an eclectic mix of contributors and commentators and the emphasis needs to be on the subject matter instead of whether or not Author X has a consulting contract for whomever or whatever. Deal with it and move on.

  6. Submitted by John Olson on 08/01/2008 - 01:19 pm.

    David, I’ve been called a lot of things over the years…but sanguine?!?! 😛

    In the instance of your curiosity regarding whether or not Blois is/was a Ciresi supporter, I’m still not seeing the relevance, but that’s OK. The TPT policy (or something like it) might be one worth looking at.

    I’d like to see Cramer’s portfolio as well, but my guess is CNBC is more interested in their ratings than they are about Cramer disclosing all of his holdings. If he has to, then I’d like to know what, if anything, Andrea Mitchell (aka Mrs. Alan Greenspan and a fellow NBC employee like Cramer) knew about the run-up in real estate before that bubble burst.

    Steve, Norm Coleman would be the happiest guy in Minnesota if the DFL hauled Mike out and benched Al. I agree with you that the state DFL did not think this through and it may very well blow up in their face. That’s the party’s fault–not Al’s. Maybe Norm wins the general election running against Al, but Norm and the Republicans are going to have to take Al seriously whether they want to or not.

  7. Submitted by David Brauer on 08/01/2008 - 08:58 am.

    John – I understand purity can go too far (and I probably do), but a reader cannot “determine for ourselves” without adequate info. Not everyone is as sanguine as you.

    I do think in the Gray Plant case readers deserved to know a big chunk of my living comes from the firm. I agree listing the conflict every time is non-optimal – I’m thinking of creating a “current conflicts” section under my bio so I only have to type it once. (It is not, at present, a long list.)

    I’m not sure if Blois was a Ciresi partisan – hopefully he will weigh in – but as a reader, I’m interested in knowing that. Blois is not the same as Bob Schieffer, by the way, or even Tim Russert post-Senate career; those orgs have rules against political activity; MinnPost does not.

    While you can go “reductio ad absurdum” on disclosure, I think candidate support by a campaign commentator probably meets the standard. Again, don’t know if it’s true in this case. As you can tell, readers will eagerly allege conflicts; best to disclose upfront.

    Can a “purity test” get in the way of fundamental reporting/analysis? Sure, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not either/or, but can most often be both.

    And yes, I do want to know Cramer’s stock holdings. It does raise questions about his motives. It has been the subject of repeated controversy, and he’s been forced to make fuller disclosure over time. By the way, thestreet.com does not let its staff make individual stock picks. That’s probably good.

  8. Submitted by Blois Olson on 08/01/2008 - 10:15 am.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. Brauer, I guess we got this thing started with a little discussion.

    I have not endorsed nor donated to any candidate the last two elections in a DFL primary or endorsement battle.

    I have been very intentional to be neutral in all races that I may comment on for at least 3 years.

    This was originally requested by TPT, and then I made it a personal policy.

  9. Submitted by stephen winnick on 08/01/2008 - 10:32 am.

    What went wrong with Al may be far more serious than fundraising costs being sky high(if that isn’t bad enough!). What’s happened is the exposure of the wizard. Like the Land of Oz, Gopherville was asking for a rescue from the Wicked Witch-in our case, chameleonlike Norm. We jumped on Al as the guy; not thinking about the writings, shortcomings, tax naivete and assorted blunders stuffed in his carpetbag. Al is a nice man, with no leadership credentials whatsoever, no experience in working with people, negotiating, hands on helping or understanding anything about Minnesota. His 4th grade teacher ad flys straight in the face his family’s decision to then transfer him to The Blake School(not that there’s anything wrong with it). Since Blake, Al’s never lived here, never been involved with anything Minnesota except his short term employment of Katheryn Lamphear. And now he wants us to send him as our U.S. Senator with U.S.O. tours as his most significant foreign policy experience. If troop entertainment is a qualification, bring back Bob Hope- better yet Marilyn Monroe. Seriously,as neither is gonna qualify as a Gopher resident in time, bring back Mike. Please.

  10. Submitted by Rich Broderick on 08/01/2008 - 11:01 pm.

    Sorry, but I don’t think things like adding the former communication director for John Edwards failed 2008 Presidential bid is going to turn things around for Franken. At this point, he better be hoping that Barack Obama’s coattails are long enough for him to catch a ride.

    Many of us — myself included, as can be verified by the numerous blogs I’ve posted about Franken’s candidacy at the Daily Planet over the past several months — saw this disaster coming. It’s not just Franken’s burn rate, staff, or inexperience that’s the problem. It’s Franken himself. He’s the classic example of a guy who thinks he’s way funnier, smarter, and more charming than he really is. And the more “authentic” he is, the shallower and less inspiring he reveals himself to be.

    All of which means that, in service to his vanity and lack of self-awareness — and because of the short-sightedness of the DFL leadership and groups like the Teamsters — we are probably going to get stuck with Norm again for another six years.

    So thanks, everybody. Unlike Al, you see, I actually live in this state.

  11. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/02/2008 - 01:42 pm.

    What Went Wrong With Al?

    The truth came out.

  12. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/04/2008 - 10:21 am.

    Franken is not going to win this race is he writes off constructive criticism like Olson’s as the complaints of a bitter Ciresi supporter. Ciresi dropped out of this race months ago. This is just about Franken and the lousy campaign he has been running.

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