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At 1:30 p.m. on Election Day, it was the calm before the storm for many campaign staffers in Los Angeles. Months of work had culminated in a single day, and for many, it was time for a break before the 3 to 8 p.m. rush to the polls.
Kerman Maddox, the managing partner of Dakota Communications, knows the moment well. His company has managed several local campaigns, and he has personally been involved in President Barack Obama’s two successful bids for the presidency.
“Today is the most important day,” Maddox said. “Because everything you did before today really doesn’t matter if you don’t get people out to vote.”
He said staffers likely spent the morning making phone calls and walking districts “like crazy.” With absentee voters out of the way, staffers were looking to push their supporters to the polls.
“You know who’s going to vote for you,” Maddox said. “The only challenge is, can you get them from that couch to that polling location to vote for you?”
In his 17th year with the full service strategic communications company, he was one of the original members of the Obama National Finance Committee, which began operating prior to Obama’s formal announcement about his candidacy for president.
Maddox said he was responsible for raising “a lot” of money and helping in key battleground states — Iowa, South Carolina, Indiana, Texas and others — during the “very contentious” primary against Hillary Clinton.
“In our mind, the big battle was always the primary,” he said.
Maddox specifically remembers the campaign’s big national meeting in Iowa in September 2007, when less than 75 people attended. The Des Moines Register had printed a poll that showed that Obama was third in the Iowa caucus.
Yet, when the campaign held rallies, thousands would attend; meanwhile, the attendance of the opponents’ rallies could be measured in the hundreds, Maddox said. Despite a lack of diversity in Iowa, there was obvious support for then-Senator Obama.
“Even though the newspaper said, according to the polls, we were losing, we knew something was happening on the ground because we had so much enthusiasm,” he added.
Maddox said the campaign knew the rules: To win the caucus, candidates had to reach a 20 to 25 percent threshold through caucus votes. When the candidates were “whittled down,” their supporters would be up for grabs. So campaign staffers lobbied for delegates to pick Obama as their second choice, if not their first, Maddox said.
“We outsmarted the others, and we got those people to come our way,” he said, adding that the group won Iowa by being “incredibly organized” and passionate. “If you’re not passionate, you’re not going to win a caucus.”
While Clinton had plenty of supporters, Obama’s were younger and were willing to “hang out” all night, Maddox said. The effort paid off, and Obama would eventually win three consecutive caucuses from March to April 2008.
“For me to see it grow from a national meeting of seventy-five people — we’re deep in third, man, deep in third — to this incredible national phenomenon, where he became the most recognizable person on the face of the Earth, was just astonishing,” Maddox said.
He said 2012 was easier, as there was no primary. Maddox said he stayed on the West Coast, helping raise money, recruit volunteers and spread Obama’s message through Colorado and Nevada.
“We just killed [Romney] in early voting, and I don’t think they ever realized what hit ‘em,” he said.
The Larchmont Village resident said the campaign sought three demographics for early voting: African-Americans, Latinos and young people. He said the plan was to get people who wouldn’t likely vote to the polls, and then worry about those who are likely to vote.
Although Republican candidate Mitt Romney used the press to make the race seem closer, Obama’s supporters felt the victory was assured, Maddox said. In a TV interview, Maddox correctly predicted that Obama would receive as many as 300 electoral votes, which was met with surprise.
“The campaign was over in our mind,” he said. “We kind of knew. …We were supremely confident.”
This year, Maddox and his company were involved in a handful of city races. Dakota Communications has represented Dennis Zine since his original bid for Los Angeles City Council, and the company is helping former Assemblyman Gil Cedillo battle for the Council District 1 seat. On a personal level, Maddox is assisting mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, and staffers at Dakota Communications often help with friends’ campaigns.
He said his company advises clients in all forms of communication. They teach message points, target points, what a candidate should and shouldn’t say and how to effectively use the media.
Maddox said his recommendations to candidates are based on their strengths. Some are good for TV, while others have a good voice for radio. He said newspapers tend to be a much safer arena for spreading a candidate’s message.
Maddox used the Expo Line as an example. One month before workers were set to close Colorado Avenue between 4th and 5th streets in Santa Monica, Expo Line officials requested help in spreading the word about the closure.
Dakota Communications sent direct mail to residents within a half-mile of the closure, contacted homeowners associations, spoke to the local press, talked to city hall staffers and used the morning media to get the word out.
“By the time the closure actually happened, we were so far ahead of the game,” Maddox said, adding that the company could have handled things differently. “We didn’t do a press conference early. We did all this stuff early to educate people, and then the day of the closure, we were pretty confident that the word had got out so we then had a press conference that day.”
He said campaigns often change during run-offs. Using Greuel as an example, Maddox said Tuesday was the most difficult day of her campaign. She was competing against another woman — Jan Perry — and Kevin James, who pulls from Greuel’s “base” — moderate Democrats and conservative voters in the Valley, Maddox said.
“Then it’s one on one — Greuel against Garcetti,” he said, adding that Greuel’s bid to become the first female mayor of Los Angeles should further benefit her with Perry out of the race. “So your strategy changes quite a bit. And when it’s one on one, it’s a lot more focus on just the two. Now, the problem is you can’t make any mistakes [because they are amplified].”
In terms of attack ads, candidates have to be careful, Maddox said. Staffers must research potentially-harmful issues — such as Clinton’s vote for the war in Iraq — and ensure that if the ad forces that candidate to lose supporters, those supporters land in their camp.
“So the strategy is, sometimes you want to go on the attack, but you have to be careful about what the attack is and who you attack, because it might backfire on you,” Maddox said, adding that direct mail can sometimes be a better opportunity for attack ads. “You can do things with mail that you can’t do on TV, because you can be meaner, frankly.”
He said campaigns sometimes “crank up the negativity” to push voter turnout even lower, benefitting their candidate. He said it’s important to talk issues and supply solutions, but at the end of the day, the job is to get the candidate into office.
“[A low voter turnout] will obviously be to the advantage of somebody,” Maddox said.
He correctly predicted that this year’s election would result in a 15 to 18 percent turnout. Maddox said that’s a frequent occurrence after a large presidential or gubernatorial election.
“It’s not a very exciting election. …But obviously, if it were exciting, we wouldn’t be talking about 15 to 18 percent turnout,” he said. “People aren’t excited. It’s kind of boring.”
Maddox suggested that the city hold its elections when the presidential or gubernatorial elections are held. He speculated that it would result in a better turnout.
“I just wish more people would participate in local elections,” Maddox said. “It would save a lot of money.”
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