All About the Washingtons
How to Run a Statewide Campaign on $38
No cash, big hair, strong results. How did Bob Healey do so well when so many other independent candidates face-planted?
"I need you to look at me," Bob Healey Jr. said to the camera in the first Rhode Island gubernatorial debate last month. It was an intimate and somber plea, like a parent opening an intervention with a wayward child.
"You probably won't see much of me in the next two weeks," he said. "I didn't get any campaign donations from Wall Street insiders or city union contractors. I'm only relying on the people and free media to get my message out."
Despite those handicaps – and despite a flowing salt-and-pepper mane of a haircut that’s more Game of Thrones than governor’s mansion -- Healey took 22 percent in Rhode Island last week, or 64,653 votes. He won two towns, Bristol and Warren, outright, and in an overall election that was decided by less than 9,000 votes, Healey was an undeniable factor and a nuisance to both Republican Allan Fung and the eventual winner, Democrat Gina Raimondo.
Perhaps most frustrating to those two major party candidates, Healey's statewide campaign expenses totaled out at $38.00, or roughly $0.0006 per vote. (Healey's campaign also raised about $500 at a Bowling with Bob charity fundraiser, all of which was donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.)
In an election year where money bought victories nationwide, the Rhode Island governor's race was no exception. According to WPRI, the local CBS affiliate, Raimondo spent more than $5.4 million over the course of the year, or roughly $30.54 for every vote (at least some of which went to positive ads). Fung spent $1.8 million, or about $14 per vote. Healey may not have won on Tuesday, but the return on his investment was a national standout.
Healey's campaign tagline was "The Cerebral Revolution," and he fashions himself a lay philosopher, an easy-chair intellectual who can rise above the mindless bickering of the Republican-Democrat duopoly. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He is also the founder of the Cool Moose Party, which for a short while in the mid-90s, ran more than two-dozen candidates in local elections statewide.
Healey describes his politics as "libertarian in some aspects, Jacksonian, Jeffersonian, socially liberal, fiscally conservative." It's a big tent, and as a perennial candidate who has run for governor three times and for statewide offices in seven elections since the mid-80s, he evolved into a fixture. "I didn't have a name recognition issue," he said. Nor is his face, or more accurately the shape of the hair that hides his face, easy to forget. Healey has become at once a Rhode Island mascot and a crucible of the essential crazy principle that unites all democracies—anyone can run.
Healey may have represented a protest vote, but as WPRI put it, the message was closer to "a primal scream from a sizable block of voters." Healey volunteer Jade Gotauco, an artist who lives in Warren, said the experience felt like something "much bigger than a campaign for governor."
"We knew the chances and we knew that the statistics and luck were not necessarily in our favor," she said. "But we set out to make a statement that can be used in future campaign and in future politics."
In 2014, record numbers of Americans identified as independents. One early-September Gallup poll had the figure topping out at 47 percent, compared to just 25 and 26 percent for Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Closer to the mid-term elections that have been widely interpreted as a Republican wave, an October poll still had only 33 percent of the country identifying with the GOP. Independents continue to poll higher than either major party.
But amid this widespread and sustained dissatisfaction, 2014 was a terrible year for third-party candidates. In nearly every statewide or federal election where they were predicted to play decisive roles, independents under-performed. Most notably among them, Kansas Independent Greg Orman lost to Republican incumbent Pat Roberts by nine percent – even though the Democrat in the race had dropped out.
In Georgia, it was predicted that Libertarian Amanda Swafford would push a tight race between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Purdue in Nunn's favor. Instead, Swafford took less than two percent and Purdue cruised to an easy win. Louisiana, where Sarah Palin-backed conservative Rob Maness finished with 14 percent and ensured a January runoff election, was the exception to what the disenchanted hoped would be the rule.
In Rhode Island, Healey may have simply been the right man at the right time. Factors that once worked against him, like his Sasquatch-esque hairstyle, are now a positive.
"I'm a walking billboard for my own campaign," he said, noting the bumper stickers, yard signs and campaign art that have exploited his Sendakian visage. After a campaign event in late October, a woman approached Healey and said that when she first saw him, his physicality frightened her, but that after listening to him speak, like a child approaching a strange animal, she became comfortable with him.
By resolutely shunning money, his campaign forged alternative tactics, all of which were explained in detail on Healey's blog. "The plan without money is to peak three days before the election," just when it would be too late for funded candidates to make any major television or radio buys, he wrote about a strategy that proved shockingly effective.
This year was not actually Healey's best campaign result, however. In 2010, he finished second with 39 percent in the race for lieutenant governor. He ran on a serious one-issue platform: eliminate the office of lieutenant governor.
"There's no constitutional reason for the office," Healey told The Daily Beast. The only ostensible responsibility is to take over the chief executive position in case of the governor's death or illness, a job Healey said the Secretary of State is more than capable of fulfilling.
"I thought we should eliminate the office and save the state" what he estimates is $1 million in annual expenses. "I don't see the worth of an office that creates its own agenda, creates its own duties and is not constitutionally responsible for anything."
It's a radically simple idea, one that the existing state government is not keen to hear, and a perfect example of Healey's enduring attraction in a state that prides itself on its idiosyncrasies.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Gotauco, the Healey volunteer, recorded a song she titled "Integrity in A-Minor." Gotauco, who believes that the system is obviously corrupt and needs changing, said that her time working with Healey was worth every effort.
"To see the people of Rhode Island come together and turn their eyes towards something different and challenge the system as it stands, it gave us hope," she said. "He’s just an honest human being, and I admire the heck out of that."