Monday, May 01, 2006

Westlund Signature Campaign: 5% to Goal, Clock Ticking

After a week of azure days that define balmy, in the Willamette Valley it feels like the shackles of winter are loose enough to discard for another 6 months. And with the warmer months comes higher foot traffic, particularly in the urban centers like Portland. Out come the footbaggers, the (sometimes Jewish for) Jesus freaks, the Billy Idol-era punkers, the West Hills boutique shoppers, and the thousands upon thousands of office creatures who trade flourescent for UV an hour each day to repair their cases of Cubicle Pallor.

In this context it's hard not to consider petitioneers anything but exploitative parasites on the body politic. And yet on balance, I like them. I'm ambivalent about the wisdom of 80% of the petitions I see, but I think the act of securing the signatures of strangers on matters of common import is actually a beautiful display of democracy. I actually GO UP to these poor bastards and ask what they have for me to sign. They think it's a trick at first; on the scale of pedestrian derision, signature gatherers are about a notch and a half above panhandlers, and below the people who sell Street Roots. So somebody asking to read their petitions throws them off their game enough that they drop their pre-taught spiel and simply stammer out which ones they have. It's actually quite a timesaver, and takes all the awkwardness out of the interaction: "Whaddya have?"
"Health-care for everyone, and open primaries."
"Signed it already; won't sign it."
"OK, Bye."

Spend any time on the bus mall and you'll find your share of petitioneers even in winter, but it's definitely about to pick up now. Most of the initiatives already out on the street I get hit up for fairly frequently, but there's one that I've only seen once on the streets of Portland: Ben Westlund for Governor.

Ben does not have an easy road to the ballot, and the 2005 Legislature made it even harder. The goal of 18,365 signatures should generally still be makeable by the August 30 deadline, but in the '05 session a bill was passed preventing voters in the May partisan primaries from signing the petition to put Westlund on the ballot. The practical effect for Westlund is that any signature received needs to be verified against the voter database post-primary in order to cross off partisan primary voters--which means that they'll surely want to get more than the minimum necessary to qualify.

That is in fact what the Westlund campaign is doing, setting a goal of 30,000 by the deadline--almost double the minimum. From the announcement of Westlund's candidacy on February 14th, let's assume that the signature process didn't get rolling it all for about two weeks, to the 28th. That's just about 6 months in which to collect signatures. On Friday I talked to Westlund Campaign Manager Stacey Dycus, and asked her how things were coming. With 2 months gone, her estimate was around 1,400. She said the "field campaign" would start up after the primary. I took that to mean that they would either begin paying people for signatures, or begin paying a whole lot more people to get them, after the primaries.

It seems reasonable; why waste time getting a lot of signatures before people know if they're going to vote? Why not wait until afterwards, see if people like the two-way matchup that they get (cough--Kulo/Saxto--cough), and THEN start pushing the Westlund signatures? Maybe that will work--I'm assuming there is a strategic plan in place that has done some form of "running the numbers." I did a little math on it myself, and I think Westlund's folks are either cutting themselves no slack, or they are not getting any actual bites from Independents in Oregon for his candidacy.

Going back to the assumption that they started collecting around Feb 28th, the 1,400 represents the total for 60 days of work. That's 23 signatures a day. If we're 60 days in, that means there's about 120 left to get them all collected. If the goal is 30,000, they're 28,600 short. To get those, they're going to need to ramp up their per-day rate. How much? How's 10 times as fast? Ben for Goobernor will need to wheedle 238 signatures a day from now until Labor Day in order to get on the ballot. Just to get to the statutory requirement, they'll need 141 a day from now on--almost seven times as fast.

Can they go full throttle that quickly after the primary? Can they maintain a constant pace for four full months? Consider this: they'll lose another two weeks if they wait until mid-May, meaning they could actually face the challenge of 270 or more signatures each and every day between now and the deadline.

Was Dycus just giving me the number she has banked and verified, and there are dozens of volunteers holding signatures on sheets out in the field? Maybe so. Did the campaign set a high goal to cover themselves, but don't really think it will take that much cushion to make the nut? Very possibly; with their strategy of waiting until after the primary, they can hope to screen potential signers better. And is 18,000 valid signatures still a pretty easy goal for a statewide signature campaign? It should be, in my opinion.

But this guy needs a tidal wave of enthusiasm to have any kind of shot at the goobernor's seat, and when the two major candidates come out victorious two weeks from now, they're going to be hitting the ground running as well. And the media will say, "Hey, (Ted) and (Ron) are putting their machines together--how's Ben doing to join them? What's that? 95% to go to even make the ballot?, (Ted) vs (Ron), eh? Should be a good matchup."

One of the very few things I miss about Virginia compared to Oregon (Pierce's Pitt BBQ is one) is the statewide polling. Oregon needs a prominent poli sci professor with some good survey research chops to do regular polling around here. Hell, the only stuff we get on our own races is Rasmussen and Survey USA. They're both fairly reputable, but they're both out of state and they're both robocallers (computer voices instead of people). Both outfits actually did a very good job predicting the 2004 race, and robocalling is now cheap enough to do with a small grunt staff. It's criminal that we have people like Hibbitts and Riley; we need someone to build a periodic Oregon Poll. If we had one, maybe we'd know whether Westlund's supporters are out there just waiting to have the clipboard thrust into their hands this summer, or the whole show is a bunch of hype that only 5% of the people are paying attention to. If it's the latter, get ready to sing the Two Sides of the Same Unlucky Coin Blues again this November.

Update, 11am--
As long as I'm doing math, I just got a press release from the campaign indicating that Westlund has raised $500,000 so far--a tasty sum indeed, especially for an independent. Ben would like you to know that 80 of those donations came from the internet, sending north of $9,000 into his coffers. That's about $125 per donor, which is a fairly high rate based on some of the internet campaigns I've followed the last couple years--typically it runs around $75 or so.

But what struck me was their overall donor rate. Westlund claims over 870 contributors to his political feed bag, and a quick use of the Galculator reveals that the average donation was a whopping $575 dollars. Looks like Ben's donors are more well-heeled than Imelda Marcos.