John Tierney desperately wants my attention

Here are just a few of the email subject lines I’ve gotten from congressman John Tierney in the past several weeks. And I am a known non supporter! Imagine how he assaults those who are with him.

Boehner victory. No regrets. Action pending. John is fighting for us. Urgent, do not delete. Really quick. Really quick. Scott, really quick. Thank you. Pay attention Scott! Scott, I’ll be blunt. We keep emailing. Barney Frank emailed you. Razor thin. We keep emailing. Jaw dropping. This is big. Sarah Palin. PETITION, birth control ruling. Quick favor, Scott. Sign your name. Great news Scott! You’re missing out! I promise. Matching gift alert. Stop the madness. Will you protect Medicare? This is big. Who’s side are you on? Plans next Monday? Scott. News just broke.

At some date in the hopefully not too distant future, campaigns will move beyond these appeals, but the reality today is that these emails remain effective. The 2012 cycle raised more than the 2010 cycle, and this one is doing well, though not holding to presidential year fundraising levels.

I expect the next appeal to have as it’s subject line;

Scott, we have your cat


The Big Mo

Don’t know if I’m aging myself with the reference. (HW Bush 88)

A doomed campaign can fail for a hundred thousand reasons. A winning one for just one happenstance. Most will fail or win because they were destined to fail or win according to forces beyond the candidates or the campaign’s control. That said:

Did you ever body-serf? You stand, near to chest high on a big wave beach, not a Hawaii beach, but the best kind of Massachusetts one, and wait. Obvious small ones pass. Some of the larger ones you let go and regret having done so. Some you engage, and leave you half standing not far from where you started. But every once in a while, you catch one, and you don’t know why, but you ride it for a long time, exhaust breath, and end up in the sand like a beached whale. Victory.

Momentum on a campaign is like that. You never know what line, opportunity, or argument will catch with the voters. Once it does, though, the reward is seeing the first sign of the wave that may carry to victory.

I remember it in 1994, to date myself, when after a long day in October I watched Janet Wu chase Mitt Romney down a Worcester street on the evening news, asking him tough questions about an issue, when up until that point I thought the media only cared about asking Kennedy tough questions. The next day I was traveling with the senator from Haverhill down 93 back to Boston when a car with a Kennedy bumper sticker passed us. “Catch up” he instructed Kevin, who was driving. “What?” Kevin asked. “That car, the one with my sticker on it”, Kennedy said, obviously. “Why,” Kevin ventured. “Because I paid a lot of money for them.” Kennedy said.

I witnessed Senator Kennedy stick his head and arms out of the passenger side window and wave at a driver who I can only imagine was at the very least startled by the sight. But I peg that moment as the beginning of his win, in campaign terms.

Today, driving north on I 84 in Connecticut, with Lucy and Cate coming back from a college tour, a car honked its horn to my left and passed me. Seeing the Seth Moulton sticker on the back I passed to and gave him a thumbs up. Together we advertised the campaign to the Pike.

Ads are up. Money’s pouring in. Endorsements are easier. The candidate is hitting a particular stride. Things are moving. It might be momentum.

Scott Ferson

James Brady

Thirty three years ago news broke that White House Press Secretary James Brady had died. Grievously wounded from a gunshot to the head, he had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. It was reported by NBC, ABC, and CBS.

Brady survived the announcement of his death, and devoted the remainder of his life to continued public service, in the effort to reduce gun violence. What would you do with a second chance at life?

For Democrats, Reagan’s election brought fear and uncertainty. We were dismissive and genuinely concerned in equal measure. The news of Brady’s appointment disrupted our fretting and nail biting, if only momentarily. He was disarming, and witty and seemingly reasonable.

When he was shot, along with the president, a police officer, and a Secret Service agent who threw his body in front of the president, James Brady had been press secretary for a little over two months. He was never able to return to work. But no one else ever served President Reagan as Press Secretary. Others assumed the role, but always carried the title “Acting.” Brady officially retired when Reagan did, January 20, 1989.

Rest in peace.

Remembering August 8, 1974

I remember it being hot. Later, when I was in the 8th grade I performed a skit in a school talent show where I impersonated a number of celebrities, but I was known throughout Marshall Simonds Middle School for my Richard Nixon. I was good. Can still do it, arms upraised in twin peace signs, “I am not a crook!” But that was later. By the 8th grade Nixon was in exile.

But in August of 1974, in the pre air conditioned living room of my youth in Burlington, Massachusetts, my family were Republicans who had voted for the President, and I watched the unfolding Watergate drama, and the collapse of the presidency and of the man who held it with rapt attention.

Politics can eat up a person. Watch any president age over his, perhaps, hopefully soon, someday her, tenure. Barack Obama is my age, but my genteel schedule in comparison is kinder. I make payroll and I fret over it as a business owner. My employees rely on their paychecks. This is stressful to me. But can anyone truly understand the stress of the decisions of a president, regardless of party?

To watch Nixon’s farewell address from the East Room of the White House on August 9th (he announced he would resign in a televised address from the Oval Office on the evening of August 8) just before the room was transformed for the swearing in of the new president is stunning. And to watch it 40 years later is even more disturbing.

If you live every day with a person slipping into a unstable mental state I can understand it might be hard to recognize how far they have dropped over a period of time, the day to day changes being incremental. This is what it was like, increasingly toxic day after day, the noose of Watergate tightening around the political neck of the country, with all of us struggling to keep focus.

The resignation was a relief, the air rushing back, for everyone, and eventually for Nixon himself. But watching that clip, now, is alarming. Standing there, he is still the man with his hands on the nuclear codes.

Before the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts was clubbed, almost to death, on the Senate floor by a congressman from South Carolina. Yet, It is widely believed that we are in the most ineffective legislative environment in our history. I don’t disagree.

But the partisan posturing, the bickering over Tea Parties and origins of calls for impeachment and dueling fundraising appeals crowing blame on inaction are juvenile, and not a real crisis.

I have lived through and watched a constitutional crisis. A real one, where the Supreme Court of the land, unanimously, ordered the Executive Branch to obey a court order called for by the Congress of the United States, and he did so. And because he complied with that order, had to resign, because he was likely guilty of high crimes. No talk of coup or civil war.

The view, tonight, from the Blue Lab is one of celebration, not of the demise of a Republican president, but for the written words in the Constitution we hold higher.

Scott Ferson, 2014

Scott Ferson, 2014


Back in my day!

Well, back IN my day there was no such thing as brainstorming. The brain was experience gained over years, from your first position in a company or on a campaign, up to the top spot, if you were talented enough. Keep your head down, learn, and, as Steve Grossman likes to say what his father said to him “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.” Given how much Steve talks, he must listen a ton.

If I had an idea on an early campaign I worked on, and I felt strongly it would be helpful, I would have to bring it up with a more senior staffer. My experience was that that staffer would look at me blankly, or tell me why my idea was stupid or wouldn’t work, or in rare instances, would claim it for his own.

In the Blue Lab we say we encourage brainstorming, and I think we do. Blue Labber’s can comment, pro or con, named or not, to this statement. Interns exposed to new tactics bring a fresh take when grizzled operatives noodle over a choice of ads, or a field strategy.

The first barrier is such free flow of thought is the comfort to put forth an idea, comment, or criticism. This summer we have plenty of participation from the Blue Lab interns. This tells me they’re comfortable with each other, and with the work, and that they are motivated and well supervised. It also tells me that they aren’t intimidated by those of us that are grizzled. So far so good.

The second barrier is on the seasoned end. It’s easy to dismiss suggested tactics you know don’t work. This is an art, not a science, but certain things are true, and instinct on the defined timelines of campaigns tends to tilt toward dismissiveness of seemingly naive suggestions.

But the proper balance is to encourage input without bogging down the decision making process. Good management on today’s campaigns embraces the start up brainstorming culture.

And so the view from the Blue Lab today was one of deep collaboration, on several projects and campaigns. All top secret. Please don’t tell anyone. It’s easy for me to say I wish I had taken advantage of such an opportunity when I was in college, but I don’t think it really existed back then. That said, campaigns and political movements have been fueled by young talent since forever.

How old were the delegates to the continental convention, Scott? Not old, old man.

The political incubator that is the Blue Lab gives these talented young minds, the future leaders of our country, the opportunity to experiment, to brainstorm, and to learn.

Scott Ferson

Reflections on a hit piece

photo (4)photo (5)Every campaign is faced with the same challenge.  How much do you highlight the positives of your candidate, and how much do you highlight your opponents perceived negatives.  Everyone has positive qualities and negative qualities.  The electorate responds to both appeals.  Guessing how they will respond, and guessing the correct formula is a mad science.

I like Chris Doherty, who ran against my client Eileen Donoghue for the state senate seat from Lowell.  Politics makes strange bedfellows we know, and an old boss of mine always said, “Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally.”  

I didn’t know Chris, other than as a candidate running against my candidate for the same office, when I first saw this “hit” piece, now a long time ago.  But he was telling me the story behind it, and I thought it a fascinating insight into a fellow campaign strategy.

Eileen was clearly the frontrunner, and in fact we were a little surprised she pulled an opponent at all.  She had run a very credible race for congress, came close to pulling it off, and captured an impressive majority of the vote in that race in her hometown of Lowell, which made up a large part of the state senate district.

But Chris ran, and ran a very good race.  He was disciplined, raised the money, and wasn’t afraid to hit Eileen.  His mail was relentless.  I think at the time we scoffed, but our polling showed he was gaining on Eileen.  Then he started to go negative.

Fast forward to today.  He gave me the back story of the above piece.  They knew they would have to go negative on Eileen.  People liked her.  They would have to change that.  They polled various negative charges and found that none was a killer, but they thought collectively a steady drumbeat of negative, and the money to fuel such a barrage, might work.

One of the negatives they tested was that her campaign was run by “lobbyists.”  Boo!  I was the lobbyist.  I presume I am one of the gray figures holding the puppet strings above Eileen in the top panel.  I don’t know who the others might be.  I think it’s nice that a woman was included.  The cigar is a bit cliche.  

The bottom panel levels the charge; the lobbyist for casinos and big tobacco would control her.  The charge didn’t poll well as a negative, the truth is that voters really don’t care who is backing a candidate, or working on the race nearly as much as they care if the candidate is a lobbyist or something else perceived as a negative.

But the piece is interesting as a campaign lesson not because of the charge leveled against the Liberty Square Group.  In fact, since it calls us one of the most powerful firms we use it in our marketing material.  It’s instructive for the decision to put a crown on Eileen’s head in the bottom panel, to reinforce the point that she was hoping for a coronation.  

Voters had a negative reaction to that.  We felt that the momentum stopped with this piece.  In races, you most likely have to hit if you are behind to win.  But hit too hard, you can knock yourself out.  


Charles Kuralt, the late CBS news reporter traveled around the country for 25 years reporting on life in America for his “On the Road” segment for the evening news. I remember loving his stuff as a kid.

We went to NH for a week or two each summer. Real live people telling their stories in Cleveland or Kansas or anyplace really seemed American exotic to me.

I miss Charles Kuralt.

Plenty of people are willing to talk on my TV, especially in sports and politics, but they aren’t real people. I include myself in this. When I pundit, I am punditing. If there is genuine movement in the feelings or beliefs of a group of voters at the time I am interviewed I am unlikely to know about it. I don’t spend my day talking to real people. Neither does the media.

They do for news, spot or otherwise, but Kuralt had his finger on the pulse of the people of this nation. No major outlet has the resources to do this today.

That said, Kuralt had a crew and a camper, he wore out six actually. What is the cost of talking to real voters and letting them tell their stories?

Enter VoterPulse2016. I work in politics, but I run a communications business, and it is that interest that has resulted in the launch of this project. Nate Silver has proven the worth in analysis of data, of polling. What we lose in this is the person.

Walter Cronkite reported the news. Charles Kuralt, in his segment on the evening news, told the story behind the news. Polling, reporting on the horserace of the political races, money and it’s effect, snapshots from the campaigns tell the news. This is a story.

VoterPulse is the focus group that accompanies the poll.

Two years, August to August, we’ll chronicle the thinking of voters, Republican and Democrat, in ten states, twenty towns. The top Republican and Democrat voting towns. We’ll visit voters four times a year, eight total. We’ll record their thinking, and the progress of their thinking up till the nominating conventions.

We have started, in New Hampshire. It’s important, and hey, it’s close! Windham and Hanover.

The other states are; California, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas. OK, I know that’s twelve total. I’m not sure why. We have some kinks to work out.


Road trip!

cropped-photo-1.jpgSummer camp at the Blue Lab for political nerds. I’m guessing a little like Russian Math camp for really smart people, but I wouldn’t know.

We start, leisurely, tomorrow at 10:30 with book group. We’re reading Sasha Issenberg’s “Victory Lab” and will talk about how one might apply the various experiments and proven tactics to the campaigns underway in our lab.

Then it’s off to New Hampshire to take the pulse of the voters. We’ve visited, and interviewed, in Windham, and tomorrow it’s Hanover. We are soldiers in the war of the voice of the voter, and Nate Silver is the anti-Christ.

(Love Nate Silver)

But our mission tomorrow, in one of the top Democratic voting towns in NH is to listen, and record, voters two years out from the national conventions that will select the presidential nominees in 2016.

Windham. (Wind – Ham) is a top Republican town. We will launch this initiative formally in August, but this is a preview, tonight, from the Blue Lab.

Scott Ferson

In praise of Blue Lab interns

What follows is a series of essays from this summer’s Blue Labber’s. They were asked to write observationally. They have done a great job in doing so. Their experience at the Blue Lab should be heavy, or fun heavy given it’s the summer, on learning. This is an academic internship. Professor Ubertaccio spends time with them to make sure this is the case. Their value to our campaigns has been stated and demonstrated every day.

But I’m struck by reading these essays that these are the future leaders of our country, and I am comforted to trust my future, and the future of my country, to such thoughtful minds.

Scott Ferson

Cab Ride

It was in a Veterans Taxi cab ride to South Station that I was able to experiment with the public knowledge surrounding the Massachusetts congressional election featuring the Blue Lab Candidate, Seth Moulton.

I’m from New Jersey so it has taken me a little extra time to get up to speed on local Massachusetts politics. When I arrived at Blue Lab I was not familiar with John Tierney, the democratic incumbent, and I was certainly not familiar with Seth Moulton. But after a few days at the firm I had figured out why we were supporting Seth for congress.

So when I got into a cab with a particularly chatty driver who was curious about what I was doing this summer, I told him about Blue Lab Group. I decided that the most logical thing to do would be to perform my own little experiment with the sample of one person (hardly a legitimate sample size, but it couldn’t hurt my curiosity to ask..) So I told him about how Seth is running against incumbent John Tierney. My cab driver had not heard of Seth (which I was not completely shocked by) but he also had not heard of John Tierney. Now, a week prior, our boss Scott had told us about some focus groups where most people had never heard of Seth Moulton and a few less had never even heard of current congressman John Tierney. Given that I had this information prior to my cab ride, I was not initially surprised that the driver had heard of neither candidate.

Yet as my drive continued, he began to talk about how he is very involved with his local representatives to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for those involved in non-violent drug crimes. So, here is a man who seems quite educated about the politics surrounding him. Enough that he is actively involved in trying to change the law. Yet he had never heard of his current congressman.

This tells me something about Tierney’s public image (that it is weaker than it should be for an incumbent) and what Seth Moulton must do to gain an advantage. That is, to point out the ineffectiveness of those politicians in office before him and to stand out himself as a politician willing to act differently.

Alissa Heller