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March 13-19, 2008

Back to Letters

Cherry pickers lose elections
by Paul Danish

Hillary Clinton could learn a thing or two about winning elections from Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Barack Obama already has.

You don’t hear the name Ben Nighthorse Campbell much anymore. Most Democrats prefer it that way. That’s because before Campbell was a Republican U.S. Senator from Colorado, he was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Colorado.

Elected to the Senate in 1992, he switched parties in 1995. So today the name Ben Nighthorse Campbell is spoken of in Democratic circles about the way the name Leon Trotsky was spoken in Stalinist Russia — in either whispers, curses or not at all.

But the most interesting thing about Campbell’s career was not that he switched parties, but how he got elected in 1992 — starting with how he won the Democratic primary that year.

In 1992, Colorado Democratic Senator Tim Wirth retired, leaving an open seat. Three Democrats entered the primary to fill it: Campbell, former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and former Boulder County Commissioner Josie Heath.

Of the three, Lamm was the favorite.

Heath had run for the Senate in 1990 and received a serious thumpin’ at the hands of then-Sen. Hank Brown. Persuading the party to give her a second shot would be a hard sell.

Campbell was a three-term Congressman representing western Colorado’s Fourth Congressional District. Most people in the Fourth CD are moderately conservative — Republicans and Democrats alike. Campbell won the seat in 1986 by beating an incumbent Republican — Michael Strang — who was arguably more liberal than he was. That meant Campbell might be too conservative for the Democratic Party.

Lamm was a high-profile (albeit controversial) three-term governor with a reputation for championing growth control and environmental causes. The early betting was on Lamm.

But when the votes were counted the nominee was Campbell. The reason was that Campbell ran a brilliant, counter-intuitive campaign. Briefly, he focused on winning in the sticks.

OK, lets review some Colorado political geography. In 1992, there were 63 counties in Colorado. However, more than 80 percent of the state’s residents were concentrated in just 12 of them — Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, Jefferson, El Paso, Larimer, Pueblo, Weld, Mesa and Pitkin. All but the last two lie along the Front Range.

So the obvious way to run in a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate is to concentrate your effort and resources on the big 12, because that’s where the votes are. Right?

Wrong. Campbell found another way to play the game. Instead of focusing on the big 12, he concentrated his effort on the other 51 counties. They may have held fewer than 20 percent of the state’s Democratic voters, but Campbell figured he could win most of them, while playing Lamm and Heath close in the big counties.

And that is exactly what he did. Campbell won dozens of small counties, each by margins of 750 to 1,000 votes over Lamm and Heath, even though the total number of votes cast in any one of these counties often was under 2,000. The upshot was Campbell came out of rural Colorado with a margin of more than 40,000 votes. He also did well in some of the more conservative big counties, like El Paso (Colorado Springs) and Mesa (Grand Junction).

Lamm won the big counties around Denver, but by margins of only 5,000 to 8,000, not enough to overcome Campbell’s big lead among rural voters.

Lamm and Heath had concentrated on where the votes were. Campbell concentrated on where he could win.

Campbell’s strategy bears more than a casual resemblance to the strategy Barack Obama has been using this year.

Clinton has focused on the big states with primaries, where a majority of the nation’s Democrats live and with more than half the delegates to the Democratic Convention. Obama has focused on the small states with caucuses, where he could run up big margins among relatively small numbers of caucus attendees.

The lesson here is that candidates who think they can ignore small blocs of voters and cherry pick big blocs lose elections. (Like Clinton, Rudy Giuliani found that out the hard way this year, too.)

There is a second lesson to be learned from Campbell’s campaigns, too.

Campbell easily won election to congress in 1992 and re-election in 1998. In 1992, he blew away a hard conservative Republican by 140,000 votes. In 1998, running as a Republican, he blew away a hard Liberal Democrat by more than 360,000.

The biggest problem in modern American politics is that candidates have to run to their party’s extremes to get nominated — right for Republicans and left for Democrats — and then try to run back to the center to get elected.

The genius of Campbell’s 1992 rural strategy was that the moderate and conservative rural Democrats that gave him the nomination were actually pretty reflective of the broader Colorado electorate — so he didn’t have to scuttle back to the center and hope no one would notice. He was already there. Kind of like John McCain.

Obama, whose small-state strategy is based on winning liberal Democrats in small and medium-sized red states, should be so lucky.

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