I began my day today at 5:00 am and spent 14 hours on my feet in temperatures that approached 100 degrees helping David Englin win the Democratic nomination to represent the 45th district in the Virginia House of Delegates. So why am I blogging at a quarter till midnight instead of sleeping? Because what David his incredible volunteer effort accomplished in the 45th's 25 precincts is truly remarkable. And it has implications for the Commonwealth of Virginia that extend far beyond the boundaries of this Northern Virginia district—I hope Tim Kaine and the other Democratic nominees are paying attention.
David Englin discovered the secret to winning elections, a strategy so clever that long-time political professionals haven't been able to figure it out. And I'm so excited about David's discovery that I'm up tonight to share it with the world. Yup, that's right, I'm going to put this secret strategy for success on the internet for the whole world to see. (This is freeware, folks!)
And all I ask in exchange is that you promise to share this secret with every Democrat within shouting distance. (Or at least every Democrat on your email list)
The secret is that there is no secret.
David won because voters could see the depth of his convictions and how much he valued their votes. He pledged to go to Richmond to unapologetically fight for the things he believes in—including on such up-hill battles as the rights of gay and lesbian Virginians alongside less Herculean struggles on strengthening Virginia's schools, tax fairness, and cleaning our environment—and his honesty and passion convinced voters that he meant what he said.
But as laudable as David's positions were (and as impressive as his thoughtful consideration of the broad range of public policy questions he detailed) what set him apart from the other five candidates seeking this nomination was how hard he worked to earn voters' support. In a political climate where many citizens think their vote doesn't matter—either because they don't understand how politics affect them or because they think the election outcome is pre-ordained—David made his constituents understand how important their votes were.
With the help of the largest volunteer efforts I've ever seen for such a race, David knocked on every door he could reach, called every number he could dial, and engaged every voter he met in a discussion about what they value in an elected official and in state government.
And if we learn nothing else from David's win, it should be this: hard work wins elections.
In case you missed that: hard work wins elections.
And third time, so you write it down: hard work wins elections.
There is no substitute for spending time with voters. No amount of advertising, direct mail, endorsements, or speechifying will make voters understand that politics is about making their lives better than spend time with them. While I was running around in today's tropical heat to get people to the polls, voter after voter told me that they were supporting him because he had taken the time to talk to them. And his support encompassed residents from all walks of life: those who lived in the projects and million-dollar houses, retirees and college students, native Northern Virginians (such as myself) and new citizens from other countries.
Emulating David Englin shouldn't be hard for other candidates to do. Volunteer activists can do it too. All it takes to be honest about your convictions and to pound the pavement is courage and a good pair of shoes.
Some might say that it is naive to say that this is a winning strategy that can serve as a model for other candidates. If it's such an obvious strategy, why doesn't everyone use it?
Well, there are two reasons. First, just because the key elements don't require vast campaign coffers—conviction and shoe leather—doesn't mean they're easy to come by. Not everybody has the self-understanding and clear sense of purpose to accurately diagnose what they believe in. Not all of those people have the gift to be able to communicate their beliefs compellingly to voters. And even fewer people are willing to make the sacrifices required to put in the time to reach out to voters who aren't already plugged into the system. It means giving up sleep, hobbies, family time—even the simple pleasures of sitting still—night after night after night for months on end. That's why they call holding elected office public service, folks: because it requires putting the needs of voters above your own.
The second reason everybody doesn't use this strategy is because it requires brilliant political strategy. "What?!" you may be objecting, "I thought you said the secret to Englin's victory is that their is no secret!" I did say that, but when I said it I didn't mean that Englin's campaign had no strategy to win. Far from it—David would not have pulled off this win without the brilliance and dedication of his campaign manager, Stephen Davis; his volunteer coordinator, Mara Lee; and his wife, Shayna Englin.
But the strategy Englin's team put together was not what comes most readily to people's minds when they hear the words "political strategy." His was not a political strategy built on psyching out voters' particular interests and offering them pandering rhetoric that gets voters to sign on just long enough to cast their ballots.
No, rather than running on the politics of this kind of gamesmanship, Englin won using the politics of conviction. His campaign strategy was built on understanding the campaign's core values, finding the voters who shared them, and getting them out to vote.
This requires real political skill—knowing the tools to figure out where these voters are, what medium is the best way to get them engaged in dialogue, and management skills to get these voters to the polls. Every candidate would be falling all over themselves to have a staff like Stephen and Mara (watch these guys—they're going places) and a partner like Shayna (who isn't going anywhere).
In the toasts that followed David's acceptance speech last night, many said that David is the future of the Democratic Party, and I'll add my voice to that chorus. But as much as I believe in David and am thrilled that we're sending him to Richmond (a Democratic primary win in this district is considered tantamount to election), I don't mean that the Party's path to political recovery depends on David Englin as an individual. I mean that it depends on the politics that David Englin practices: one that marries the politics of conviction to the tactics of hard work.
David Englin has no patent on this strategy—it's free for all candidates and citizen activists to use.
And I'm sure David would want everyone to make it their own.