The Anatomy Of A Political Upset

Posted by & filed under 2012 Election, Controlled by Parties, Independent Candidates, Why Be Independent?



By their very nature, independent voters of all strides should be interested in political upsets. After all, it’s not very often in today’s two party system that a long entrenched incumbent is upset by an upstart challenger, and when independent candidates make their way into higher office, it’s almost always via the upset win – this year’s Angus King victory excluded.

With that in mind, this The New Republic piece on the campaign of Congressman-elect Eric Swalwell from California’s 15th district offers an interesting case study for independent voters and candidates to learn from. Despite being cut from fairly prototypical political cloth — a city councilman in his California hometown and a successful Almeda County prosecutor —  nobody gave Swalwell much of a chance when he announced his 2012 run against 40 year incumbent and Dean of the California delegation, Democrat Pete Stark. Due to the new top two primary rules in California, Stark had a path to victory as a centrist Democrat if he could make it out of the primary and to the general election, but he faced similar a very similar set of obstacles to an independent candidate running against [a] partisan(s):

“When [Swalwell] announced, in September 2011… what he calls “a long winter” ensued as local leaders circled the wagons around the incumbent. To a person, every Bay Area representative endorsed Stark. “One person very high up,” Swalwell said, a state party official, “told me that there’s a ladder for these sorts of things, and that I wasn’t even the bottom rung.” Others threatened to squash him if and when, after losing to Stark, he set his sights on a lower office.”

How did Swalwell prevail in these less than desirable circumstances?

  • An effective, humorous communications plan: Swalwell held a mock debate with a stand in for Stark after the incumbent refused to debate after the primary and before the general election. Predictably, Swalwell won.
  • A tech-savvy door to door ground game complete with iPhone and Facebook apps to track and foster voter engagement and enthusiasm.
  • A bumbling incumbent who was unprepared for a serious challenge, because he didn’t think anyone had the gumption to step up to the plate and run a credible campaign.

What can independent candidates learn from Congressman Swalwell’s example? Don’t get discouraged by party insiders, adapt to new technology to efficiently fill in holes left by an expected fundraising deficit, exploit the weaknesses of your incumbent (and sell them to the press), and most of all, use the unpredictability of a challenger campaign to your own advantage.


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