You’re in a tough campaign — a long slog with weeks still to go — and a TV station releases results of a poll that shows your candidate ahead by 9 points.
Good news, right? Cause for optimism, at least?
Not if you want your supporters to dig a little deeper into their hearts — and into their wallets. Which is why the headline of a text message recently sent out by the campaign of U.S. Sen. Tina Smith to her supporters made just such a scenario seem like a cause for concern: “KSTP/SurveyUSA: Smith Holds Single-Digit Lead in US Senate Race.”
Technically, yes, ‘9’ is a single digit. Though as single-digits go, it’s a big one. And yet, according to Smith’s campaign, it was also a call to arms: “Can you rush an urgent contribution of $3 or more so we can stop our opponent from gaining one more inch of ground?” the message read.
Take the Tim Walz for governor campaign. It first saw a silver lining in being ahead in two media polls: a KSTP poll that had Walz up by 7 points and a Star Tribune/MPR poll that had him up by 9. “Two new polls have confirmed what we’re seeing on the ground: Tim & Peggy’s message of One Minnesota is resonating across the state,” read a message from “Team Walz-Flanagan.”
But then came the warning: “These polls are just a snapshot. This is going to be close, and we need to do everything we can for the next seven weeks.”
Then: “I want to be clear: polls won’t win this election,” cautioned Walz campaign manager Carrie Lucking. “Hard work will win this election.”
That, and money, of course. The message asks donors to rush a contribution. In fact, “rush’ is the most-common verb used.
Things are great … if you’re losing
Before the latest poll results were in, a Smith campaign message to supporters made the race out to be even closer than the survey suggested. “BREAKING: The Cook Political Report just downgraded our race, moving this race towards Republicans and leaving us one spot away from a pure ‘Toss Up,’ ” the message stated. “This is just one week after two polls showed this race in the single digits. One of them within four points — right in the margin of error.
“We can’t afford to lose any more ground as we head into September. We must hit our August goal to fend off the special interests and super PACs ready to spend big in this race.”
In fact, it seems the only candidates who ever, ever express optimism in fundraising appeals are the ones who are trailing. After all, they need to give donors hope that the cause isn’t lost, that their money won’t be wasted.
That’s why, citing the same poll that led Smith to fret, Smith’s GOP opponent, Karin Housley, portrayed the results as great news. “With early voting beginning on Friday, Minnesota’s special election for U.S. Senate is still very much a race to watch,” her campaign told supporters. “Today’s Star Tribune/MPR News poll finds a single-digit race, with 15 percent of likely voters undecided. The Star Tribune writes: ‘the race is a priority for national political parties’ and says ‘the contest could still be up for grabs.’ ”
The same dynamic has played out in fundraising appeals by governor candidates, with Walz’s campaign expressing worry and Republican nominee Jeff Johnson’s projecting hopefulness.
In announcing a visit to Minnesota by Vice President Mike Pence, for example, Johnson used it as proof that the campaign is … viable. “We are excited to have Vice President Pence in Minnesota, and the attention our state is being paid speaks to the historic opportunity we have to elect Republicans to key seats from the statehouse level to US Senate to governor,” Johnson told backers.
Even a pre-primary poll that showed him trailing primary rival Tim Pawlenty and the two most likely DFL opponents was portrayed as good news by Johnson. “A poll was just released this morning from Emerson Polling on the Minnesota governor’s race showing me as a stronger candidate against the DFL this November than Tim Pawlenty,” the Johnson campaign bragged. “The poll shows me several points closer than Tim to both Tim Walz and Lori Swanson (and within the margin of error).”
Even when Johnson was attacked by Pawlenty in a TV ad, his campaign saw it as good news, as the ad’s “very existence means it’s a good day for the Johnson campaign as it signals that Tim’s obsessive internal polling (all $100,000 of it) shows the race is very close — something he clearly never imagined would be the case.”
‘Dark forces’ at work
The calls for cash get more panicky as state and federal campaign finance deadlines approach. The latest fundraising deadline, which came early Wednesday morning, communicated to donors that while money is good, perceptions of the campaign are almost more important. As Walz finance director Patrick Tanis wrote this week: “September 18th at midnight marks our next reporting deadline. As one of the FINAL deadlines before the election, it’s important for us to signal not only to the state, but the country, that this campaign is a force to be reckoned with. That’s why it is so critical that we hit our targets.”
Before the primary, Lori Swanson’s DFL campaign for governor played up the perception card as well. “This report is PUBLIC,” wrote campaign manager Jeff Anderson. “That means that everyone — our opponents, Republican strategists, and the media — will see the strength of our grassroots campaign. If we look weak, they’ll begin their attacks on Lori and our grassroots campaign.” It turned out that Swanson’s fundraising was fairly strong while her grassroots campaign was lacking.
Another theme often cited by campaigns: that they are up against dark forces. “We know our opponent is on the air, and dark money organizations have gone up with attack ads against us — so staying on track is important,” Smith’s campaign wrote in one message.
“Every dollar helps us respond and be ready for GOP dark money attacks,” it wrote in another.
“We wanted to loop back with you,” the Walz campaign stated. “There’s no doubt about it — we’re up against some dark forces in this election, and that’s why we need to hit our goals. We’ve set a goal of raising an additional $40,000 from grassroots supporters like you before Tuesday at midnight.” And this: “We’re up against some dark and divisive forces. But, I believe we can build coalitions and face down these obstacles. I believe in the limitless determination of my fellow Minnesotans.”