Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Brown M&Ms of Politics

The March issue of Fast Company had an interesting article called “The telltale brown M&M” by Dan Heath and Chip Heath. It is on early warning signs. One example given is on the high dropout rate in Philadelphia high schools. Kids who dropped out were more likely to have missed a lot of school days in 8th grade and to have filed English or math in 8th grade. So to stem the flow of drop outs schools and parents should keep 8th graders in school and passing English and math.

The title of the article comes from a clause in Van Halen’s touring contract that called for a bowl of M&Ms backstage, with all the brown M&Ms removed. The band’s stage show involved a lot of equipment and the contract spelled out the exact ampage and how far apart the outlets should be. It was too complicated to check everything at every show to see if the stagehands had done everything correctly. As a quick check the band had the brown M&M clause put in the middle of the contract. If the M&M bowl was correct then it is likely the stage was set up correctly. If the bowl contained brown M&Ms then everything needed to be checked because the contract had not been read or followed.

Is there something that can be considered an early warning sign, a brown M&M, in political campaigns? For those who want to make sure the people running for office are paying attention to detail, what actions or procedures early on will give an indication of that? Party insiders get a look at candidates in the embryonic stages and before candidacies are announced. For the rest of us, though, what can we watch for indications that campaigns are sound and candidates promising enough that they can attract good staff and keep track of details?

There are two definable early indications. One is the ability to legally and correctly gather the needed number of petitions. Someone whose petitions are crooked is probably going to be at least a little crooked when in office. If a candidate isn’t a good enough judge of character to find ethical people and train them well enough (or find volunteers / staff that will) to follow petition rules, how will they manage to stay afloat in Harrisburg or Washington? A petition challenge is not a bad sign, but losing one is. We’re seeing a lot of petition challenges this year. Incumbents should have the experience and staff on hand to gather petition signatures easily. Challengers need to demonstrate their competence by gathering petition signatures correctly. Granted, answering a petition challenge can be a campaign distraction and can be expensive, but surviving a challenge shows their initial competence and also their ability to survive a trial by fire.

Another early warning sign is campaign finance reports. If a candidate can’t put together a fundraising strategy he or she won’t be able to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of governing. A candidate whose staff can’t read and follow campaign finance rules will probably have sloppy staff as an elected official, too.

In the past I’ve looked at quarterly campaign finance reports for congressional candidates but this week I hope to start posting blog entries looking at state level campaign finance reports.


Adam Lang said...

Good observation. I would also recommend Statements of Financial Interests where they have to disclose certain financial information.

AboveAvgJane said...


Good point, thanks for noting it. Another brown m&m!