Gus Ayer: How & why to wage a losing campaign. UPDATE – School for untouchables in India named for Gus!

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Gus Ayer with Obama

From the broad grin on Gus’s face, you just KNOW that he was preparing to do some unexpected lobbying.

I was poking through our ample file of unpublished drafts looking for something to post today when I came across something from Gus Ayer, our late and lamented “Mayor Quimby.”  I had been thinking of Gus today both — and missing him more than even usual — because of the OCTA Board revisiting a toll lane proposal (on the merits of which Gus’s friend and political client Councilwoman Diana Lee Carey will soon set us straight) and because today is the last day of the quarterly fundraising cycle, which means that I’m having to work through my inbox with a backhoe to remove all of the pleas for money “before this critical deadline.”  And I found something worth sharing.

This piece was initially written in defense of — well, me — from charges in the Weekly that I was running the worst political campaign in California history (or some such) against Bob Huff in SD-29.  I’ve removed some of the nastiest and personal stuff, because the Weekly has been a lot better this year (despite its editor’s thin skin about criticism) and Gus is, alas, not around to defend himself if anyone fires back.  But the basic idea that he presents, outside of the context of any of the campaigns of 2012, is good, important — and also counterintuitive and perhaps interesting even to those who aren’t electoral politics buffs.  So, today’s a nice day (while hiding from the sunshine that Gus so loved) to trot it out, with most of the barbs removed.  I’ll try to lure Gus’s political amigo Huntington Beach Councilmember Joe Shaw, who shared Gus’s views on the topic, here to take part in the discussion.

The question Gus addresses is: why (and how) should one run a losing political campaign?  Gus was not a fan of losing elections — he was a big fan of winning elections, as he did all over the county in 2012 — but he also knew that a losing election effort could still confer great benefits.  Here’s Gus, from late October 2012; the story was never quite finished so I’ve added just a very few things that reflect things that Gus said in person to flesh out his philosophy. – Greg Diamond.

Stories [criticizing apparently doomed election efforts] display a staggering cluelessness about how electoral politics works.  So here’s [a] tutorial. There’s nothing new or startling here, but it [will help those who] are just unclear on the most basic concepts.

Political consultants produce compelling narratives for potential donors that detail their candidate’s “Path to Victory.” A good “Path to Victory” document analyzes the district, the candidates’ strength and weaknesses, the performance of previous candidates and the composition of the electorate. From that basis, there is an optimistic, sometimes wildly optimistic, description of the strategy and tactics that describe exactly how you will cobble together the votes to get to your “win number”.

There are benchmarks. Is your district above or below the “Feinstein Line”?  [Note: this is how well moderate Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein does in a district.  One can also use outgoing Treasurer Bill Lockyer for this.]  If it’s a traditionally Republican district, has Republican registration dropped to the “Wisley threshold” of 38% [making a “Democrat + disaffected” coalition possible]? If your district wouldn’t seem competitive under normal analysis, do factors like strong ethnic voting come into play?

Before the redistricting reforms passed by voters, almost no Congressional or state legislative districts in California were even remotely competitive. Republicans and Democrats made an unholy deal after the 2000 census to ensure that every district had a lopsided advantage for one party.

After redistricting, most districts still offer no conceivable path to victory for a member of the minority party. If Dana Rohrabacher were to be discovered dead in bed after sex with an 11 year old boy, he would still get a majority of the votes in his district. Republican operatives would move into high gear to convince voters that a dead pedarest was still a better choice than a live Democrat. Electing the dead guy would lead to a vacant seat, followed by a special election. And Republican voters would weigh their choices carefully, “I don’t really want to vote for the pederast, but then again, at least he’s dead. And that Democrat, what kind of name is “Varesteh”? Sounds like a Muslim terrorist. And besides, this may just be a conspiracy by the liberal media, including the left-leaning OC Register to trick us.”

So that leaves us with several districts in Orange County where a Democratic or Republican challenger, where one has managed to survive the new jungle primary, is only on the ballot as a sacrificial lamb. No matter how hard you try, you can’t write a remotely convincing “Path to Victory” memo that shows an election day victory for Greg Diamond, Steve Young, Bob Rush, Ron Varesteh, Joe Moreno, or whatever loser is running against Loretta. There is no tsunami of a wave election rolling towards the coast, no gangnam style viral phenomenon that will motivate every voter under 35, no silver bullet.

What then is your role as a candidate who has absolutely zero chance of winning? And does it matter?

You might go meekly like a lamb and offer yourself up for sacrifice. This may be helpful for future candidates to know what the baseline party vote is in the district. In this case, you just function as the generic party candidate, [someone to show the flag and make people feel good about voting for you and your party].

You can also follow the state party’s advice — and work your ass off to turn out voters for candidates in more competitive districts, supporting and praising those local candidates and making support for initiatives a big part of your platform.  (You’re a candidate — people are more willing to listen to you!)

You can stage events and attempt to attract favorable coverage from the local media — at least until you are forced to concede that Orange County exists in the shadow of the LA TV and radio market, with one major newspaper that has abandoned the county and another that is a Republican party propaganda outlet?

Or you can just have some fun and see if you can do some damage to your opponent.  [You never know when something you dig up in a losing cause may contain the seed of a later victory.]

[Back to Greg’s writing.]  So: do you have a candidate near you who logically doesn’t seem to have a chance, or maybe just isn’t a betting favorite?  If you have some money to spare, consider them giving enough of a contribution to allow them to put up a fight — to show the flag and to get people to march in favor of the issues that we hope, someday, will prevail.)  Midnight deadline, after all!  And you never know — miracles do happen, although one should never depend on them.


This just in, from one of Gus’ brothers:

Hey Vern,

It was good reading your tribute to Gus a few months ago.

My brother Mitch has been working for awhile raising the funds to build a school for approximately 100 Dalit children… the project is complete now but for some work on the floors and the roof.

I had no idea until today, but the school was named in Gus’s memory.

The priority and value that Gus placed on fatherhood and on education came to mind when I saw this plaque for the first time today.

I thought I’d share the photo with you… I also sent it to Erin at

Vern:  What is Dalit?  I had to look it up.  This is the caste in India previously known as the “untouchables.”  Yeah, that does sound like something Gus would want named after him!


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