Jeff Blodgett extended interview
Campaign strategist Jeff Blodgett cut his political teeth serving as an aide to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. In the five years since his death, Blodgett has trained thousands of campaign volunteers, workers, and candidates as executive director of Wellstone Action, a group that works to get progressive candidates elected. Blodgett was the Minnesota campaign director for Barack Obama as well, and recently penned Winning Your Election the Wellstone Way (University of Minnesota Press) with Bill Lofy. Blodgett will host a post-election debriefing on Thursday. at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis.
Can you define what exactly the Wellstone way of running and winning an election is? Jeff Blodgett: It's a couple of things. First, you need a candidate who is authentic and true to who they are and what they believe. Often times, authenticity is a two-way street. Voters pick up on authenticity and they feel a connection with someone that they know who they are. Secondly, it's running a grassroots campaign that puts a focus on exciting a base of supporters and organizing and mobilizing those supporters and winning the election.
City Pages: Did you see the Wellstone strategy in any major elections?
Jeff Blodgett: Well, for sure the Obama campaign took the "Wellstone way" to great heights and quite beyond what I've ever seen. I think two elements-- authenticity and connections between the candidate and the voters-- were definitely present in the Obama campaign in a big way. Also, the Obama campaign invested enormous resources in field organization. They hired a lot of field staff, opened offices, and created a campaign that allowed for huge involvement by people. I think that the Obama campaign is the gold standard in terms of the kind of campaign we are interested in.
CP: Do you think other politicians will see how well this kind of campaigning worked for Obama and will try it in future elections?
JB: I do. I think that it's becoming more and more clear that in major modern campaigning, the heavy reliance on paid activity, such as television advertising and direct mail, is having less and less impact on voters. Almost by necessity, it's becoming important to have a ground game in your campaign that allows you to have conversations with voters on a mass scale. That's what grassroots campaigns are all about. It's not only the right way to fund campaigns, it's also a winning way, and it will be essential as reaching voters gets harder and harder using the paid forms of communication.
CP: What do you think it means that Minnesota voted by a large margin for Obama, but apparently couldn't decide on Franken or Coleman?
JB: Probably because the race had a lot of negativity, and there was a third-party candidate who was the recipient of votes from both sides. I think that is the primary reason things were tighter: It was a hard-fought race, but some people reacted to the tone on both sides and moved to a third-party candidate. People like to think that Minnesota is a bright blue state, but I think it's a mistake to assume that. This is still a battleground state and competitive. Clearly there are a lot of independent voters who are not party voters who will split their ticket and vote for the person. It's a cautionary tale for future Democratic campaigns here in Minnesota.
CP: What do you think of the campaign for Sen. Wellstone's former seat?
JB: It was an expensive race. We don't advocate, and certainly Barack Obama didn't do this, disarming and not being competitive financially. If you look at Norm Coleman and the kind of national funding he had, it took a democratic candidate who had the resources and the ability to raise significant funds to even be competitive. This was an unusual race because there was a strong third-party candidate, so it made it more difficult. I think Al Franken did similar kind of work to build a campaign organization. It certainly wasn't as big and as broad as Barack Obama, but to some extent Obama sucked all that oxygen out of the room. So, the Franken campaign, to some extent was left with not really as many people who were available to actively engage (voters). So they had to make do. In the final stage, we combined efforts and tried to really turn out the vote. It was complicated by the third party in there. But I wouldn't say it was antithetical to the kinds of campaigns that we're talking about, I think Franken had to make do with the circumstances.
CP: Any predictions for the recount?
JB: I really have no idea. The key is these undervotes- people who voted for the presidential race but seemingly didn't vote the senate race. It seems to me that very likely that in that group who tried to vote for the senate race, but somehow their vote wasn't recorded. And if their intent is clear, then this race could change. I think a recount is absolutely essential because of this undervote dynamic. Anything could happen, but if I were Norm Coleman I would be very, very nervous right now. I'm just not sure his slim lead holds after you look at the undervotes.
Jeff Blodgett talks politics Thursday at Magers & Quinn. Free. 7:30 p.m. 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.822.4611. Photo courtesy of Wellstone Action
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