Boy on the Bus
Executive editor S.C. Gwynne talks about life on the campaign trail with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez.
TEXAS MONTHLY EXECUTIVE EDITOR S.C. Gwynne shares his experiences following Tony Sanchez’s campaign trail and tells the story behind his article, “Grand Illusion.”
texasmonthly.com: What were you most surprised to discover about Sanchez’s campaign?
S.C. Gwynne: His ground operation was one of the biggest ever mounted in American history. On a single weekend in October he had some seven thousand campaign workers walking through neighborhoods all across the state, hitting 1.1 million doors. The size and scale of it were breathtaking.
texasmonthly.com: At what point did you realize that it was all “smoke and mirrors”?
SCG: I don’t think anyone really knew this for sure until election night. Remember, polls had shown Sanchez pulling within 7 points of Perry in early October. Sanchez’s own polls—which had been far more accurate than the public polls during his primary campaign against Morales—had shown Sanchez nearly catching Perry on two separate occasions. Until Tuesday night, the scenario most of us believed in was: Sanchez loses by five to seven points, but turns out so much of the minority vote that he floats John Sharp and maybe Ron Kirk. None of that happened. The democrats were slaughtered.
texasmonthly.com: What were your impressions of Sanchez himself?
SCG: By the end of the campaign, he had become a pretty good candidate at the retail level. He is personally a fairly formal man, very old-school—but by August he was comfortable diving into crowds and shaking hands. He became a much better public speaker. As an employer—and he employed a lot of folks—he seemed humane and tolerant and his staff liked him and respected him. By all accounts, he is a decent, intelligent guy. He also seems to have the stomach for hard-ball politics. Going negative didn’t bother him much, and he was thick-skinned enough to put up with 10 months of attacks on his business background. Put a republican label on him (which in Tony’s case isn’t that far-fetched) and you have a pretty attractive candidate.
texasmonthly.com: You mention several instances where Sanchez and his staff were in disagreement about campaign strategies. As you spent time on the trail, did you notice obvious tension? Did this have any sort of effect on the outcome?
SCG: There was certainly some bickering —I think in particular there was disagreement a few months ago about how much they ought to let Sanchez “out” in front of the public and the media, and also about how much of the “swing” vote they wanted to go after versus the “base” vote—but I don’t think there was any more bickering and infighting than there is in any other campaign. Sanchez is not the kind of boss who pits people against each other, and he had a low tolerance for infighting. Campaigns are hectic, pressurized places, and there are always lots of little blow-ups.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of changes did you notice in the campaign as it got closer to Election Day?
SCG: Two main changes: the first was the start of the giant ground operation—thousands of people walking neighborhoods—which was launched three weekends before the election. The second was Sanchez’ negative ad showing Perry trying to get out of a speeding ticket. That ad, of course, called Armageddon down upon them: Perry countered with his ultra-negative ad linking Sanchez’s bank to the death of an American narcotics agent.
texasmonthly.com: You said the Enrique Camarena ad (mentioned above) was a turning point in Sanchez’s campaign. How big a role did this commercial actually have in his defeat?
SCG: In retrospect, Sanchez would have lost anyway, but by a narrower margin. I think it was the equivalent of a bullet in the back of the neck. Perry was taking no chances.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have any theories as to why Hispanics don’t turn out at the polls?
SCG: I don’t have any personal theories. This subject has been studied to death. I asked Tony Sanchez that question. His answer was that he thinks a candidate must make a “personal” connection to a Hispanic voter to get him to vote. By this he means, literally, a personal call by the candidate or a surrogate, asking for his vote. That was the whole point of the ground operation.
texasmonthly.com: While Sanchez’s “get-out-the-vote” crusade was unsuccessful, do you think it will have some effect on future elections?
SCG: I think that anybody who is thinking about spending a lot of money to get out the minority vote is going to have to think twice. This was a colossal failure. Democrats would like to think that, given enough money, a candidate like former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros really could get out that vote. But after this, all bets are off.
texasmonthly.com: How has your understanding of campaigning in general changed since writing this article?
SCG: Sanchez spent a huge amount of money, but still managed to run a relatively unfocused campaign. He had too many issues, and he didn’t have enough issues. I know that sounds odd. But when you have no spending restraints, there is nothing stopping you from running more than 50 different ads that give voters lots of information but no clear idea of who you are. In 1994 George W. Bush ran a model campaign against Ann Richards. He was given little chance to win at the outset, but he stuck to four issues and only four. He pounded at them. He stayed on message, and eventually that message got through. Sanchez—also running an insurgent campaign against an incumbent—failed to do that. I think the lesson here is, no matter how much money you have, first make sure that you have a message; and then see that it gets through.