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Warning: The Congressional campaign on your screen is smaller than it appears.
Until a couple of weeks ago, no one had heard of Dan Adler. He was an also-ran in the crowded special election race to replace Rep. Jane Harman (D) in California’s 36th district.
But in the final days of the race, the Democrat’s campaign gained national attention.
Adler had a Hollywood actor as his campaign manager, garnered 300,000 views for his offbeat ads on YouTube and enjoyed an Election Day endorsement from Charlie Sheen on Twitter.
All of that attention amounted to 361 votes — less than 1 percent of the total cast May 17.
“We certainly couldn’t afford polling,” actor Sean Astin joked to Roll Call this week. The campaign was forced to measure success on “intuition” and the fundraising that coincided with the increased attention, said Astin, who served as Adler’s campaign manager and starred in his ads. Adler raised more than $90,000 with three weeks left in the race.
Going into Election Day without survey data, “frankly, we didn’t know what to expect,” Astin added.
Adler’s stunningly poor performance wasn’t the only surprise of the night as Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D), regarded as one of the top two candidates in the field, failed to make the general election runoff. But neither Bowen nor the top finisher, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn (D), received the same level of coverage Adler enjoyed.
When entertainment meets politics, the media just can’t resist. Most recently, Donald Trump’s potential presidential candidacy dominated the news for weeks.
The race in the Southern California district wasn’t getting any national attention because observers assumed that a Democrat would ultimately win a Democratic seat. But when it became known that Astin, of “Rudy,” “Goonies” and “Lord of the Rings” fame, was managing Adler’s campaign, the press took notice.
Astin appeared on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown,” “Good Day LA” on the local Fox station and NBC’s digital affiliate in Los Angeles. USA Today, the Washington Post, Time, the Boston Globe and other media outlets ran stories about the California race mentioning Astin’s role.
But Astin’s local NBC appearance demonstrated part of the challenge of the campaign. While he was trying to promote his candidate and longtime friend, B-roll clips of Astin’s father in the 1960s television show “The Addams Family” were playing in a split screen.
“We understood where the interest came from,” Astin explained to Roll Call about the appearances. “We got the novelty of me doing it. We just hoped to get a little boost out of each one.”
But the amount of time spent on television didn’t translate into votes. By Roll Call’s calculation, Astin would have had to conduct an additional eight hours of interviews to get Adler to the runoff.
On paper, Adler looked like an insurgent candidate. The former agent at Creative Artists Agency and former vice president of business development at Walt Disney Imagineering tapped his Hollywood connections for contributions and attention. Former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner endorsed Adler on the Huffington Post, and R&B artist and Grammy winner Macy Gray performed at an event for the candidate.
Adler also hired prominent media consultant Bill Hillsman of North Woods Advertising to produce more of his quirky ads to generate attention.
Hillsman was the ad maker for Democrat Paul Wellstone’s upset win in the 1990 Senate race in Minnesota and more recently has done ads for Democrat Ned Lamont in Connecticut and former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.).
In this race, not all of the attention was good. For example, the ad “Stick Together” featured a Korean dry cleaner with a thick accent that critics said reinforced racial stereotypes. The ads also weren’t seen by many people in the district. The campaign could only afford to run about $50,000 worth of ads on cable in the expensive and crowded Los Angeles media market. That means 2,000 spots ran over six days, a minimal buy.
One Web video spoofed Astin’s role in the movie “Rudy,” but this time with Astin giving Adler a pep talk.
In the end, Adler’s lack of votes was extraordinary. He finished 36 votes ahead of Democrat Loraine Goodwin, a doctor and an attorney from Madera, roughly 250 miles away from the 36th Congressional district, in central California’s San Joaquin Valley. Last November, Goodwin lost the general election in the 19th district to Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, 65 percent to 35 percent.
Goodwin spent $172 on her race through May 5, ran no campaign to speak of and garnered roughly the same amount of support as Adler in this month’s special election.
But Adler’s performance still wasn’t enough to dissuade more cable news coverage. CNN interviewed Astin on “American Morning” three days after his candidate received less than 1 percent of the vote.
Up against two well-funded, established Democrats, Adler started the race with significant hurdles. The first-time candidate with a first-time campaign manager tried to compensate by targeting first-time voters, minority groups and independents. It’s a noble cause but not a winning strategy in a low-turnout special election. In such a short amount of time, the Adler campaign struggled to convert the national attention into district support.
In his endorsement, Eisner wrote, “I wish I lived somewhere between Venice and San Pedro so I could vote.” Apparently, he wasn’t the only one.
Astin appears to be taking the defeat in stride and is aware of his shortcomings as a manager. A couple of days after the election, Astin tweeted about being able to take all of Adler’s voters out to dinner because there were so few of them.
“There just wasn’t enough time for Dan to connect with enough voters,” Astin told Roll Call. “It was a miracle what we accomplished in five and a half weeks.”