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Campaign trails wait as candidates get social

This week on It's Just Politics, it's all about the art of the campaign announcement.

This morning CongressmanMike Rogers surprised no one when he told the world, or, at least, the state of Michigan, that he will not be a candidate to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the retirement of Carl Levin in 2014. Rogers says he has too much on his plate as the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. And, there’s truth to that: Syria, Iran, and North Korea, not to mention the renewed scrutiny over how the U.S. gathers intelligence.  A very competitive U.S. doesn’t fit well with those big responsibilities.

We should point out Mike Rogers could not do that job if he didn’t live in the safely Republican 8th Congressional District, nicely drawn for him courtesy of the Michigan Legislature’s GOP majorities. Rogers hasn’t had a tough race since his first congressional race in 2000. That race against Democrat Dianne Byrum a dozen years ago was one of the closest in the country. But that’s not a problem for Rogers anymore. He probably has this seat for as long as he wants it.

Rogers let us know his plans via e-mail, which is how it’s done these days. Earlier this month, Republican Terri Lynn Land announced her U.S. Senate plans (she’s in) on Twitter. And, former-Michigan Congressman Mark Schauer did the same thing; filed his papers to run for Governor as a Democrat and, then, Tweeted it.

This all brings us to: the soft rollout. Although, in Mike Rogers’ case we should probably call it the soft bow-out. But, yes, there was a time when a politician would call a press conference to let us know a decision like that. Social media and electronic communication have made that unnecessary. And it’s changed the pre-announcement dance between politicians, the media, and the public.

Let’s take Mark Schauer as an example. He filed his papers to create a campaign committee. In Michigan’s state races, there’s no such thing as an exploratory committee for that interim period before a candidate is all-in, that’s really just a presidential campaign thing. Campaign committees - no matter what you call them - exist for the sole purpose of accepting and spending money. In Michigan, you cannot legally accept a campaign donation without someplace to deposit the check. A candidate with his or her own money can spend it on a campaign, but everyone else needs a campaign committee. So, before there was a campaign committee, there was the “Schauer ‘buzz-building’ campaign.”

Prominent Democrats and progressive groups released statements “urging” Mark Schauer to run. We say “urging” because, really, at that point, Schauer needed no “urging.” So, it’s a kabuki dance. And it requires the complicity of the political media to use the accepted phraseology. We’ll say something like, “Today, Group X urged Candidate Y to run as Candidate Y is expected to announce soon that he is running for…” The reality is more like, “As expected, another group announced its support of Candidate Y as part of the buildup toward the announcement that we all know is coming.”

But, the faux-build up worked for Schauer. He got a lot more attention, a lot more interviews and news stories in the weeks before he announced than if he had held a press conference or done an announcement tour.

That’s surely not to say that we’ve seen the end of the “announcement tour.” Candidates will still do the “official” hard rollout with a tour of Michigan’s major TV markets - Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Flint/Saginaw, as well as capturing the corners of Michigan that fall in the Green Bay, Toledo and Fort Wayne markets. As a matter of fact, the soft rollout gives the candidates time to fundraise in anticipation of the hard rollout to pay for campaign staff, transportation and hotel rooms.

And, the hard rollout – that formal announcement – still holds value for a campaign. Campaigns often try to use an important place or date for the announcement in order to create some kind of symbolism. In 2007, when then-Senator Barack Obama announced he was running for President, he made the announcement on the steps of the Old Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois; the same place where Abraham Lincoln began his political career.

But you certainly don’t always get to choose your symbolism. In Michigan’s last gubernatorial go-round in 2010, then-Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon chose Lansing Community College to launch his campaign – to highlight his commitment to job training. But he was a half-hour late for his own announcement. A campaign staffer walked in after the cameras were all set up, tripped and fell, sending placards, easels, streamers flying. That bit of video became emblematic for the rest of the doomed Dillon campaign (he came in fifth in a field of two, if we remember correctly)

Thinking back, Andy Dillon, maybe a soft rollout would have been the way to go for your campaign…

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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