How do you get them to vote for your candidate?

Posted: Oct 31, 2000 12:00 AM
How do you go about persuading somebody to vote for the candidate you favor?

Wide attention has been given to newspaper endorsements. They are put in perspective by recalling that the great majority of newspaper publishers in 1936 counseled their readers to vote for Alfred Landon, precipitating the greatest display of mutiny in modern times.

Where an endorsement is important, indeed supremely important, is where it translates into -- c-a-s-h. A vivid example here is the action of The New York Times, which last Wednesday endorsed Bob Franks for Senate in New Jersey. Mr. Franks is running against Jon Corzine, whose eagerness to be senator from New Jersey is the most expensive lust in recent history. Mr. Corzine, when last examined, was committing $56 million to the enterprise, which is on the scale of what Steve Forbes spent -- but Forbes was seeking the presidency, in a campaign that lasted five years; and he competed in a dozen primaries.

There are about 8 million people in New Jersey. A rule of thumb is that two-thirds are entitled to vote, and half of them (ITAL) will vote. That came (the last time around, when Sen. Robert Torricelli was elected) to about 2.8 million people. That's about $20 per voter.

But wait! Inasmuch as, in a contested race, only one-half will go to the winner, the figure becomes $40 per voter. You think that is the end of it? No, it is not. It is probably safe to say that the candidate of a major party will, by simply existing on the ballot, get about 80 percent of the vote he'll end up getting by spending a ton of money. That jumps the cost of the marginal voter to about $200. For $200 you can see "Kiss Me Kate" and have dinner at the 21 Club.

The easiest way to assess Corzine's appetite for the Senate is to ascribe it to vanity, sheer vanity. Fifty million dollars for a seat in the Senate from a middle-sized state. But a dispositive answer to that disdainful denigration was given by Arianna Huffington on "Firing Line" the year after her then-husband, Michael Huffington, spent $30 million trying to become senator from California.

A wisecrack was made at her expense about the high cost of political cupidity. She handled it by observing that nobody spends a lot of time criticizing men who spend $30 million to acquire a minor Van Gogh, so why should they be affronted by someone willing to spend $30 million to achieve the opportunity to do what he can for his country in Congress? Not easy to answer, that one; and it speaks eloquently for the Supreme Court's position that no bounds can constitutionally be put on money spent in one's own behalf in a political contest.

But the electric effect of the Times' endorsement of Candidate Franks is -- money. People figure that if the New York Times backs a candidate, that candidate has a reasonable chance to succeed. Overnight, the GOP dispatched $600,000 to the Franks operation to permit him to buy a little time on Philadelphia and New York television stations. This awful extravagance is part of the overhead of competing for office in Connecticut and New Jersey: You need to buy New York television time, even though you'll get only 10 or 15 cents' return for every dollar spent. Still, the Franks candidacy is suddenly alive again.

On a more human scale, how does one influence others to act as you'll act in the polling booth? You begin, of course, by attracting to your candidate the attention of any organization that could be helpful. If you can get the Sierra Club to sign on, you have got yourself a moneyed, cutthroat lobby. Ditto the National Rifle Association.

Letter-writing of a personal nature is potent and strangely neglected. Everybody who has ever given a nickel to anybody will receive a hundred solicitations from candidates, but not many will receive personal letters. Mrs. Phil Gramm, a week or so before her husband's first election to the U.S. Senate from Texas, "wrote" in longhand -- had written for her -- several thousand letters addressed to other women identified as occasional, but not resolute, voters.

Nobody ever knows what was the incremental inducement that led the incremental voter to the ballot box to vote for the victor. Some societies seek democratic prestige by requiring every citizen to vote. Most often, in the 20th century, this requirement has been coupled with giving the voters no real choice. Soviet democratic exercises regularly resulted in 98 percent for the Bolshevik candidate. In Mexico, until recent years, if you weren't nominated by the ruling PRI, you might as well not have bothered to run.

Some Americans won't vote because, they say, there is no significant difference between Gore and Bush. That view isn't entirely eccentric; it is the view being taken by Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. But (ITAL) you know, and (ITAL) I know that there is a difference, and (ITAL) you know how (ITAL) I think you ought to vote!