Last week’s Democratic primary election results in the Bernalillo County state legislative races contained several shockers for ol’-style New Mexico political observers. Several very experienced and savvy pundits misfired badly on races in which senior, tenured lawmakers were knocked off by challengers.
In one sense, this cloudiness in the commentators’ crystal balls is readily explained: They know that incumbents almost always win, so they have a strong bias toward predicting the predictable. When the occasional novice pulls the upset, it hardly disturbs the pundits’ well-established inertia. But last Tuesday, three such events flew in from left field and we felt the earth shake.
The explanations offered tended to blame the victim: He didn’t get started until too late; he was hurt by the newspaper stories; he had lost touch with his constituents. There had to be an explanation for the mystifying results, and the most available culprit is generally the loser himself.
I’d like to take a different tack: I think there has been a new ingredient added to the mix, another factor that from now on needs to be examined and accounted for when analyzing politics in New Mexico, an element that subtly but irreversibly has changed the electoral landscape: a style I’ll call la politica nueva, a “new” politics.
In traditional New Mexico politics (as practiced and refined by the giants of our civic past like Dennis Chavez, Joe Montoya, Clinton Anderson, Manuel Lujan and Pete Domenici), politics was an art. When it was successful, it was usually because the practitioner had skillfully woven together a combination of groups, interests, families and local machines into a cohesive blanket or tapestry, one loose enough to cover a great many wildly different shapes under its mantle.
In that classic form, la politica depended for its success upon the network of relationships with key figures in villages, neighborhoods and counties. If the network was well-maintained, those leaders (bosses, patrones) would put out the word to their adherents, and the results were run out during the polling, practically guaranteed.
For decades, that has been the standard New Mexico model, and it could be argued that it has served the people fairly well. Its products have been predictable, loyal and largely unquestioning. Discipline in heritage politica is maintained through patronage, access, assignments. Good soldiers are rewarded; quarrelsome troopers do without.
Campaigning in that system can be accomplished from the comfort of the office: Place the necessary phone calls to the key figures in the network; reinforce the alliances; plan a rally or two to kick up the excitement level for the voters; order the beer for the victory party.
In that scheme, the yard sign is an important indicator: If the candidate is in favor with the local leader, his name will grace the leader’s front yard or be displayed in an even bigger version on the leader’s vacant corner lot. Conversely, people eager to be known as affiliated with a popular candidate (or her organization) will volunteer their property for the signs. Thus, lazy analysts could sample the electorate’s leanings by simply counting signs.
But that ol’ style of electioneering has been losing its grip for some time, a slippage that accelerated last week with the victories of Eleanor Chavez, Eric Griego and Tim Keller over accomplished practitioners of the traditional approach. La nueva politica flexed its muscle. The art of politics has been re-calibrated; it is now transforming into a science of politics.
Oh, sure, they still put out yard signs. People expect any serious candidate to have yard signs, even though a valid connection between the ubiquity of signs and the likelihood of victory has never been demonstrated. But the efforts of the campaigns are on contacts, not advertising; on engaging voters in personal conversations to elicit opinion—not on T-shirts, bumper stickers, newspaper ads and billboards.
I refer to it as a science because it has evolved into a strict calculus: Identify your supporters carefully and make sure they get to the polls; identify your opponent’s supporters as well as those registered voters who seldom or never cast ballots and don’t waste energy on either group; focus on swaying the undecideds among the group whose past history shows them likely to actually vote.
It sounds simple ... and it isn’t rocket science, but its effective practice requires three components that most of the time candidates aren’t able (or willing) to use: a professional campaign manager (not the candidate himself) to organize and monitor the operation; skillfully produced (not homemade) materials to be distributed door-to-door or by mail; hours of time spent by the candidate (not paid staff) wearing comfortable walking shoes door-knocking at every single likely voter’s residence.
It's true that not every candidate who won last Tuesday night employed la nueva politica ... but it is equally true that very few of the practitioners of this newly evolved science lost. This tells me we have seen the wave of the future, and it involves a lot more shoe leather and a lot fewer yard signs.
One encouraging corollary of the emergence of “new politics” is that it seems to be able to compensate for discrepancies in fundraising, to some degree balancing the effects of lobbyists’ support. Several of the losers last Tuesday outspent the victors, and in no instance were the incumbents seriously out-spent. But they still lost. Yard signs are expensive—but they largely represent an outdated and ineffective campaign strategy that is thankfully passing from the scene.
The shockers are likely to continue.