Are Politicians Missing the Bus with Campaign Tours?
They’ve crisscrossed Florida this month talking about how they’d govern the state in the 21st Century.
But despite the talk about TV ruling the campaign, and the advent of Facebook, YouTube and other new ways of reaching voters, candidates for office have still done much of their stumping in a decidedly 20th Century way.
It’s been nearly 40 years since Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus chronicled the campaign as caravan, going town-to-town on the chicken dinner circuit. But this year, both major candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination have embarked on bus tours across Florida – Attorney General Bill McCollum is on one right now. And Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek just wrapped up a 10-day tour of his own.
In 2010, does it make sense to make stump speech stops in little towns like Bonifay and Fernandina Beach?
Meek’s opponent, wealthy real estate mogul Jeff Greene, dismissed a bus tour as inefficient – but not the general idea of making personal appearances. He just prefers to fly, and as a multimillionaire largely funding his own campaign, he has the means to do so.
“When we looked at Kendrick Meek’s bus trip, we saw the attendance at most of the stops, which apparently for the most part was 10 to 20 people, we found that we were better able to reach people by (flying) into each community,” Greene told the News Service of Florida last week. “It’s too big a state to cover the amount of territory we have to cover in the time we have left. We want to be all over Florida, every day.”
The day Greene spoke, he had two-hour intervals scheduled between events in Orlando, Jacksonville and Tallahassee, a pace that would be impossible to keep on a bus or even by car.
Another self-financing candidate, gubernatorial aspirant Rick Scott hewed to tradition and held a bus tour as his campaign moved from primarily focusing on television commercials.
Scott – who remarked earlier this year that by end of his campaign he would “know every county’s name” – did get the opportunity to see some places and hear about local issues that an airborne-only candidate would miss. It’s not easy to fly into places like Apalachicola to talk to oystermen about the spill – but Scott went there during his bus trip.
Meek argued that bus tours remain important for that connection to voters in rural areas that might otherwise be overlooked. During a campaign rally in Pasco County last week, Meek said tours like his would also help him govern, should he win the election.
“Some folks say ‘well you should just have a bus tour of the big counties, why are you going to small counties?’” Meek said to a crowd of about 40 people in Port Richey. “‘One or two precincts in a big urban areas, you can get more votes there than you can get in these small counties.’
“The campaign is about how you’re going to serve,” Meek continued. “The reason why I’m here is to show my commitment as a candidate. I don’t think it’s a waste of time for me to be here. I think it’s very, very important because it gives me perspective.”
Meek also told a story about his bus stopping in Holmes County during a swing through the conservative Panhandle, where “there are not a lot of card-carrying Democrats” anymore.
Meek said he spoke on the phone with the party’s county chairman. “And he said, ‘You know Kendrick, it would really be nice if you stop by. We’ve never had a statewide bus tour stop.’”
“I stopped in…Holmes County and had lunch with one Democrat,” Meek said. He left the man with some yard signs and then went on to the Possum Festival in nearby Washington County.
“That meant a lot to him and just by me visiting Holmes County gives him a story to recruit someone else,” Meek said. “…The reason why I’m much better than Mr. Greene on the issues is because I’ve taken the time to go throughout the state of Florida.”
Florida State University political scientist Carol Weissert agreed more with Meek’s perspective on the bus tours than Greene’s.
“I think it’s a pretty good way (to campaign) and here’s why: one, it reaches real people,” she told the News Service. “You don’t know who you’re reaching when you send out ads and mailers. Second, you get local press coverage. It energizes the base. People who are going to come out are people who are going to support you or are thinking about supporting.”
Weissert said it was important to remember that the bus-riding candidates were still campaigning in other ways. For the most part, they are not trading in their television advertising for highway miles, though McCollum and Meek do not have as many campaign resources as their free-spending opponents.
“It’s supplemental,” Weissert said. “At the margin, as an additional thing to do, particularly at this part of the campaign, when it gets down to needing to motivate your people, I think it’s effective.”
Weissert also disagreed with Greene’s assessment that the state was too big to cover on a bus.
“Even at the president level, they’re doing (bus tours),” she said. “That’s a lot harder. Florida’s a big state, but it’s not as big as the country.”