Let's Talk Sense.....

May 13, 2003 Volume XXVIII, No. 1
Roswell, New Mexico
Readership, this date: 21,576

A Primer on Party Politics

On May 3, 2003 the Republican Party of New Mexico elected a new state chairman. This article is not about that. That event is over. It is time for everyone to move on with their lives. All we need know about it is that John Dendahl should be thanked for his dedicated service and Ramsay Gorham should be congratulated on her election. Enough said.

What follows, rather, are some observations that arose from that process that have a direct bearing on issues raised in the spring of 2002 and that were endlessly chewed on throughout the past last year. We finally have a chance make some points we have wanted to make for at least eleven months. The dynamics of party politics which give rise to these lessons learned are clearly observable in the process of the recent chairman election, but have nothing to do with the final results of that election, nor who was on what side. Here goes.


The 2002 Republican Nomination for Governor
The State Convention
Delegate Selection Process
Convention Results
KKOB Commentary, Walter Bradley and Rob Burpo
What actually happened in the Primary Process
The Ahrens Misdiagnosis and Erroneous Analysis



In January of 2002, Lieutenant Governor Walter Bradley held a 30-point lead among Republican Primary voters over his nearest rival, State Representative John Sanchez. Also in the running and trailing behind Sanchez were KKOB Talk Show host Larry Ahrens, State Representative Rob Burpo, and retired New Mexico National Guard officer Gilbert Baca.

The State Convention

A key moment in New Mexico party primary races is the state pre-primary nominating convention. At this event some 700 delegates from the state's 33 counties meet to place names on the ballot for all statewide and congressional races. A minimum of 20% of the delegate vote is needed for a candidate to get a place on the June primary ballot. Failing to qualify (reach 20% at the state convention) requires would-be candidates to go back out to the people and get twice as many signatures as that of qualifying candidates. Additionally, ballot order is determined by the convention. In other words if Bradley gets the most votes at the convention and Sanchez comes in second, then Bradley is listed first on the June primary ballot, Sanchez second, and so on in order of finish at the convention.

Doing well at the state convention is important. The top ballot position is highly prized. It is believed by most observers to add a percentage point or two to a candidate's total on election day. Second, at such an early stage of the race, a first place finisher at the convention can lay claim to "frontrunner" status in his or her race. Since the convention is covered by the media, a strong showing can result in a "bounce" for the candidate with the most delegate support. This can be important in fund-raising---and psychologically as well. It can take a candidate who is trailing in the polls and make him or her appear to be the candidate with momentum.

Delegate Selection Process

State convention delegates are selected at the county conventions during the weeks leading up to the state convention. Well-organized campaigns have their candidates at each and every county convention---maybe even ward and precinct meetings. They recruit highly committed supporters to run for delegate to their county conventions so that they can then be in the running to be among the 700 delegates who will get to vote at the state convention. It is a process involving not just the staff, but the candidate himself, personally phoning supporters, helping train them on the rules, providing information at each step along the way.

As the county conventions end, a candidate reviews lists to see how many of his or her supporters have been selected. Then he sets about to personally persuade the undecided delegates. The process is a grind, requiring hundreds and hundreds of phone calls, follow-up visits, and direct mail to all 700 people. Again, this process is only slightly aided by the ongoing wholesale campaign over the airwaves. What counts at this stage are not the 95,000 Republican primary voters who will vote in June, but the 700 delegates who have a vote at the convention in March.
For all the above, the sophisticated, well-managed, high-profile campaigns in high-information races, pour a lot of time, effort and money into the county and state conventions. Doing well at a convention, more than anything else, is simply a matter of hard work and organization.

Convention Results

Here are the results of the convention at Socorro, on March 16, 2002:

John Sanchez 351 54%
Walter Bradley 182 28%
Rob Burpo 59 9%
Larry Ahrens 52 8%
Gilbert Baca 6 1%

Ahrens, Burpo and Baca, failing to reach the 20% threshold, had not achieved official candidate status. Each would be forced to collect an additional 2,500 signatures in order to have their names appear on the June ballot. Ultimately, only Burpo would decide to stay in the race with Sanchez and Bradley. Baca got the additional signatures, but ended up announcing he was quitting even though his name stayed on the ballot. Ahrens pondered the situation for less than a week, then quit.

To this point, none of this is really news. It is information, perhaps enlightening to some, but nothing controversial. It was the subsequent commentary from Ahrens when he returned to his radio job, aided and abetted by his KKOB radio colleague Jim Villanucci, (joined by Burpo and Bradley after the primary) that serves as the starting point for this analysis of New Mexico Republican party politics.

KKOB 770 Commentary, Walter Bradley and Rob Burpo

When Ahrens quit he began letting it be known that he was a "victim." He had not really lost. He was the victim of party favoritism led by then-party chairman John Dendahl. His reasoning was along these lines: Dendahl, though without formally announcing it, and without an actual position in the Sanchez campaign, had nonetheless "sent signals" to the party rank and file that John Sanchez was the "anointed" Republican nominee for governor. At that point the thinking goes, all resistance was futile. A word, a signal, a nod from Dendahl would have Republican Primary voters marching pretty much in lock-step to nominate whomever the chairman's favorite was, in whatever contest.

(Note: We just want to stipulate for the record that we hold Mr. Ahrens and Mr. Villanucci in high regard. This analysis is in no way intended as any sort of criticism. We have met Mr. Villanucci only once---to congratulate him on being easily the most humorous performer at the Gridiron dinner in Albuquerque last November. In an exchange of perhaps a half dozen words, he was gracious and cordial. We met Mr. Ahrens and his lovely wife on several occasions in the late winter and spring of 2002. They are both very personable, charming individuals with no pretensions. We find both Mr. Ahrens and Mr. Villanucci to be talented, entertaining radio personalities. This analysis deals with what we see as erroneous conclusions about the political process, and in no way is intended as negative toward either of them.)

Throughout the rest of 2002 and continuing into 2003, both Mr. Ahrens and Mr. Villanucci, as well as Walter Bradley and Rob Burpo, returned to this theme over and over. "Dendahl" had controlled the outcome of the party nominating process. Any candidate not chosen by him was pretty much powerless to overcome the stamp of approval he had given someone else. Dendahl, it seemed, was a kind of Svengali, holding sway over thousands, with an awe-inpsiring ability to control events. (Later, this same Dendahl was referred to as highly unpopular by the same people. They probably also do not understand that his recent defeat for party chairman---under conditions virtually the same as those described in a state convention---- completely undercuts the argument that "he can make the Republican Party do" anything.)

What really happened in the Primary Process

For those of you who have been reading Let's Talk Sense... for years the idea of a party chairman---or anyone else---being able to dictate the outcome of a primary makes little sense at all. But you also know that it is not only the nature of candidates, but very much the nature of human beings in general, to look outward. It is far easier to search for problems caused by others---some outside force---than it is to be introspective, to look to oneself for failings. That is human nature pure and simple. Seldom do we see mistakes of our own doing. Things happen "to us." It is much more common for a human being to seek victim status.

The Bradley Campaign

The fact was, Sanchez trailed Bradley in the polls, 36-12, at the time of the convention, with Ahrens at 9 and Burpo at 1%. The Sanchez campaign chest had just over $1,000 on hand----and had gambled everything on pulling a big upset at the convention. They did. But even after the convention, the poll numbers hardly moved at all. What did move though, was money.

The Sanchez Campaign immediately began to spin the convention results nonstop. The convention was a big deal because the Sanchez Campaign had played it up as a big deal. They had lowered expectations going in, "hoping their underdog would get 20%" and expecting the frontrunner Bradley to "win going away." When Sanchez clobbered Bradley, the insiders and "big money" donors took notice. They began to flock to Sanchez, even though the general public was listless and paying relatively little attention. The "bounce" was among insiders and contributors.

Adding to their spin, The Sanchez Campaign portrayed Bradley as the big loser at the convention because "he had been organizing for two years" and Sanchez had "just barely got in the race." Continuously working that theme, the Sanchez Campaign slowly began drying up the Bradley donors. They successfully sold the convention as a stunning defeat for Bradley. In effect, they used the convention to sell Sanchez to the donors, so that they could use the donors' money to sell Sanchez to the voters.

Bradley made a key blunder in advocating a tax increase. While he subsequently denied it, the abundant documentation to the contrary only made him look worse. He repeated the mistake with a baffling and contradictory series of postions on abortion. Whether pro-life or pro-choice was not so much the issue as his inability to grasp and understand the terminology of the debate. That hurt him too in making him look not ready for prime time. Bradley's biggest problem in the convention process however, was that he simply did not come close to matching the Sanchez ground game, the relentless hunt for delegates.

The Ahrens Campaign: Misdiagnosis and Erroneous Analysis

This brings us to the number three candidate at the time of the convention, Mr. Larry Ahrens. He committed a common analytical error in elective politics: The assumption that through force of personality one can drive oneself to a victory in a political race. If Ronald Reagan could not do it, in 1968 or 1976, most of us mere mortals should know by now that it takes organization.

Key factors in Mr. Ahrens disappointment with the process were the assumptions he and his supporters made going into the race. The flawed assumptions led to a misdiagnosis of the reasons for the outcome. This in turn led to erroneous analysis, which resulted in bitterness and disillusionment.

While it is true that Mr. Ahrens had been a radio personality for 20 years over New Mexico's leading radio station, this in and of itself should have given him little reason to be hopeful of winning a gubernatorial primary. The American political landscape is littered with the carcasses of would-be political leaders trying to parlay a media career into a campaign. Sure, there are successes as well. But there are a number of key elements that distinguish the successful from the unsuccessful.

First of all, Mr. Ahrens' reach was not that wide. He was fairly well known in Albuquerque, though hardly universally even there. Outside Albuquerque his name ID was low. Second, the format under which he had labored, successfully (make no mistake, Mr. Ahrens and Mr. Villanucci are very successful men in a highly competitive business), was extremely stilted. While he had "twenty years' experience," as he often said, it was in speaking for perhaps two to four minutes at a time, maximum, with other people. "Traffic and weather every ten minutes on the sevens," is the dominant theme of his show. And they have to work in numerous commercials between those updates. There is relatively little time for actual dialog---hardly an effective way of projecting oneself as a serious thinker on public policy issues, much less becoming a serious gubernatorial candidate. (Again, Mr. Ahrens may be all those things, it is just that his supporters were wrong to assume that the radio program conveyed it.)

While most listeners could glean that Mr. Ahrens was somewhat conservative, the jovial, avuncular style called for in morning drive time talk did not lend itself to the kind of following, say, a Rush Limbaugh, or a Dr. Laura would have. There was neither the time, nor the inclination---probably on the part of the station management---to cultivate that kind of interaction, much less the on-air persona. It was clearly okay to be "conservative" on some things, and let that be known, but it was also clear that a great deal of ambivalence, and "on-the-other-hand" cheerful banter had to be present. And it was. This was entertainment, and passing the time of day, far more than Limbaugh, Laura and scores of others. Yes, they are entertainment too, but far more serious in the depth and reach of their programs. This is not a criticism of Mr. Ahrens, but merely an acknowledgement of the format he labored under.

Third, Mr. Ahrens did not raise much money. Fourth, like Bradley, but even more severely, he failed to grasp the importance of a strong grassroots, organizational effort----one that put a big emphasis on county conventions and the state convention---that could demonstrate the viability of a candidacy.

Fifth, he misunderstood his audience. Even if he had been better known, as well known as he thought he was, he was dealing with a tough crowd. Starting with the 950,000 New Mexico voters, by the time you whittle that down to the 300,000 registered Republicans, to the 95,000 who will actually vote in a primary, and finally to the 700 who will be active enough to get themselves elected as state convention delegates, you have a fairly elite subset of voters. They are not easily impressed. You are going to have to show them. Unfortunately for Ahrens, a candidacy based on the above-described radio format was just not enough to communicate a vision. It was enough to garner a significant percentage of voters. And he maintained a solid residue of hard-core fans.

Republican primary voters, though, are looking mainly for two things: 1) a vision, communicated through strong, usually conservative, policy positions and 2) electability, a demonstrated ability to appeal to the electorate and win.

But perhaps his biggest disadvantage Ahrens faced was that he had never been involved in the party before. This is far more important in winning a primary---almost a must for winning a convention---than in winning a general election. (True, Gary Johnson is an example of a new face. But, he had people around him who knew how to organize at the grassroots and he started early, with key supporters in more than a dozen counties almost a year before the primary. Also, and this cannot be overemphasized, he plopped down a half million dollars of his own money to jump start the process. Nobody in this race, let alone Mr. Ahrens, did that.)

Ahrens made the assumption that a few well-aimed barbs at Manny Aragon, and "state government" through the years, consistent with his theme that we can "do better," somehow constituted a rationale. He wasn't long on specifics---again a product of an overestimate of his celebrity appeal---believing his status as a well-known radio personality would have people flocking to his campaign without the need for a strong, well-communicated vision. It is pretty clear that Ahrens and his followers were genuinely surprised that these long-time party activists (the people who have been stalwarts in the nominating process for years) did not gravitate toward him almost automatically. Yet there was no real reason he or his supporters should have expected that.

But if Bradley's failing at the convention was organizational, Ahrens did not even have a fraction of the effort Bradley did.

Ahrens did fine in his speeches---everyone did. There was hardly any difference in their convention speeches. That was not the point. The point was whether they had the delegate votes committed or not. He didn't. Neither did Bradley, or Burpo. So the convention was a bust. But, importantly, not for the reasons they believe

Let's be clear. Larry Ahrens has a lot of qualities that make him a potentially attractive political candidate. He is tall, good-looking, friendly, articulate and well-informed. He has all that going for him. That said, he did not follow, strategically or tactically, a political game plan that would allow him to be seen in the best light, and realize his fullest potential.

In the final analysis, Ahrens should not have gone to the convention at all. He did have a measure of name recognition (though not as much as he believed) and he had some standing with a significant percentage of the voters. Unlike Baca and Burpo, Ahrens was always a serious candidate and could have been a contender all the way through. However, as someone who had not been active in the party, and had neither the funding nor organization of Gary Johnson, a better strategy would have been to ignore the state convention entirely, and run strictly as an outsider.

He could have been formidable to the end. As it was, with the showing they had, Ahrens, Burpo and Baca were all finished at the convention. Ahrens, to his credit, could see that, though his reasoning was wrong. Human, but wrong.

Summary: Dendahl hasn't chosen anyone, and Gorham won't either

Try as I might to communicate with a few diehard voters---and more than a few reporters (big myth: that news people in New Mexico understand a lot of what happens in politics and elections. They don't. Many of them just don't get it at all, and are every bit as vulnerable to the wildest conspiracy theories as the looniest of voters), a loud and vocal subsection of Republicans really believed that a ''conspiracy" led by Dendahl, "dictated" the party nominee for governor, and for that matter lieutenant governor, and for all we know, land commissioner, congressman, and every other position.

Problem is, Dendahl, faced with an opponent for state chairman who knew how to organize, and knew where the votes were, could not even hold on to his party position. If he could not do that, how could he determine the nominee for an actual elective office----one that requires scores of thousands of votes to secure.

He could not "control" the outcome of a subset of voters numbering only 358. How could he dictate to 700 convention goers how they were going to vote, up and down the ballot? Furthermore, for the hard-core Bradley-Burpo followers, if he could not control 350 people, how did he tell 95,000 primary voters, a huge percentage of whom have never heard of Dendahl, how they were to vote? If he could not find, train, and elect a mere 180 delegates, and get them to Albuquerque for something he, personally and intensely, wanted to win, how on earth could he move thousands to do something for someone else?

The answer is: he couldn't. He could not save himself in a tiny universe of voters. And he could not determine the outcome in a large one either.

A huge factor in party politics is mechanics: organization, understanding the rules, making phone calls, travel, face-to-face retail salesmanship. It is hard work, takes tremendous motivation and stamina. Those who don't understand that are doomed to failure. Those who don't learn from the failure are doomed to repeated failure---and worse, guide others to failure.