On Wednesday, September 26, 2012, our Portage County TEA Party had the “opportunity” to counter a visit by President Barack Obama to Kent State University which is just a mile or so from our office. Many groups around the state and across the nation have found themselves or will be finding themselves in the same situation over the next few weeks. I am taking the time to step through the process our group went through in deciding what we would do to counter the President’s visit, how we would execute on that plan, what it would cost and what the results would be. My intention is that this document will help other groups develop similar and/or better strategies going forward when they are put, on short notice, in the same situation. At the end of this article you will find pictures and copies of all press releases, emails, phone calls and signage. Attached you will find PDF’s of actual newspaper coverage and in the body you will find a link to the actual TV coverage.
Timing is everything:
I will say right off the top that, in my opinion, we received a significant “break” because word of the President’s impending visit leaked to us so early. We first saw a posting on a blog from our local newspaper, the Record Courier, on the afternoon of Thursday, September 20, 2012, which is almost a week before the scheduled visit which was announced as Wednesday, September 26, 2012. This is highly unusual to have that much notice as normally you will have three or four days. That was a mistake by the campaign for which you will see we made them pay dearly. The key was that we responded IMMEDIATELY to this news. Within the hour we had an email out to our members, “What kind of welcome can we prepare for the President? Please send your ideas!”
Within minutes we started to get ideas from our members and the most repeated idea had to do with the empty chair speech that Clint Eastwood made at the 2012 Republican Convention. But what could we do with empty chairs? We started with the idea of asking everyone in the County to put an empty chair in their front yard the day the President visited to symbolize his empty promises. We then developed a list of empty promises to put into our Press Release. This would be easy to communicate, would reach out to voters across the spectrum and would directly counter what the President would be saying during his visit. However, we knew we needed something more to get the kind of media coverage we would need to get our message out. We needed what is a called a “hook”, something unique or interesting that would get the media to cover it.
So we started to build on the empty chair idea, and we thought about the colorful guitar statues that they had put up in front of Cleveland businesses a few years ago to promote the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. I think in Cincinnati they did pig statues and other cities they have done fish, frogs, etc. We decided that we would build giant empty chairs, paint them bright colors, and put them out around the county at busy intersections with signs on them that laid out the broken promises of this President. This enhancement had the double benefit of not just getting the media’s interest, but of also of being a permanent part of our campaign strategy. The chairs would stay up until election day as a constant reminder of the President’s failures. Which also helped justify the cost and the effort since it would be too much to do for a one-day protest. These chairs would be 8 feet tall so we could transport them easily, and in thinking that thought, we realized that we could get even more value out of the chairs if we put them in pickup trucks and drove them around town on the day the President was visiting before putting them into their permanent locations.
That idea evolved into an even bigger idea, literally, of building an even larger chair in the front yard of our headquarters. We are fortunate to have our office on one of the main state routes, State Route 43, coming off of Interstate 76 going to Kent. It is one of the highest travelled roads in the county. We decided to build a 12 foot high chair in our front yard that would be painted a bright color and would have several large signs on it. So the visibility would be huge. On the back of the chair it would have a sign that said, “Clint Eastwood Convention Speech – Google it!” The idea was to get passers-by to go online and watch the speech. Around the bottom, on the three large sides, there would be signs that would say, “Empty Chair = Empty Promises of Barack Obama.”” We felt confident that this would get the media’s attention.
Finally, we had to decide what we would do on the day of the event. Since we were hearing that the President was going to come in on a helicopter into campus, there would be no way of protesting his motorcade. Our focus was to counter protest anyway, so what we wanted was to protest where we would get the most exposure for our message. So we called the Kent City Police and talked with them about staying away from the crazies on the other side and finding a location that met our needs. We decided to protest across from the Old Main Campus on State Route 59 which is the main east-west road through Kent. By being across from Campus, we would be connected to the event, but not having to deal with the Campus Police, only the Kent City Police. We needed no permit because we were just going to stand in a long line on the sidewalk with our Romney, Mandel, and homemade signs. This would give us maximum exposure to average citizens who would be more open to our message. It would make it easy for the Press to find us and it would keep us away from any confrontations. So, we had our ideas, could we execute it all in just six days?
Building the Chairs:
The next day, Friday, September 21, I sent out another email and did a robocall to all of our members that do not have email telling them what we were planning. I asked for volunteers to meet at our office on Saturday morning to start building giant chairs and then some to come on Saturday afternoon to start painting the chairs. Our plan was to send our Press Release out on Sunday so it would be in the Monday morning newspaper and then to hit talk radio hard on Monday. As our members heard the plan the response was overwhelmingly positive. It was creative and it was a fun idea that all of our members could participate in and contribute to. Almost immediately a local business donated a bunch of lumber for the chairs. I put out a robocall to the full membership asking for guys with trucks who could go pick up the lumber that afternoon so we would have it for Saturday morning. Within minutes we had five volunteers all of whom picked up a load of wood and brought it to our office. Many of them had been members of our group who rarely came to meetings or who had only gone on one bus trip, but this idea touched them and brought them to action. That is what good ideas do for your group. Then we got a big break when a man who had just come to his first TEA Party meeting the month before called and offered to let us build the chairs in his 10,000 sq/ft factory where he had tools and where we could be inside! Friday night we started taking apart some of the pallets and taking nails out of some of the wood to figure out what we could use to build the big chair in front of the office and the other 8 foot chairs.
The next morning, Saturday, September 22, it was raining as volunteers, guys with trucks, saws, drills, hammers and levels, descended upon our office to start building chairs. Our first challenge was a chair design that was simple, easy to build and looked similar to the stool Eastwood had used in his speech. We had about 20 different design ideas submitted, but we quickly got everyone in front of a white board and decided on a design that would be sturdy, would last through the election, would be large enough to catch people’s attention, and would be hard to climb up on! We set a goal of building ten 8-foot chairs first. It became clear that we could not spend all of our time salvaging the scrap wood, most of which was now wet from the rain which would cause problems with painting it later. We would take what we could salvage and send a group to Carter Lumber to pickup whatever else we needed and we would go to the factory and build them there. By 11:00 AM we had about 10 people working in teams to cut the wood, assemble the pieces and get them ready for painting. We had decided on the colors for the chairs (white, green, yellow, orange and purple) and had sent a volunteer out to pick up paint. We were fortunate that at the factory they have a paint room, so we would be able to spray paint the chairs. We had been ready to hand paint them, but this would be faster and do a better job. By 2:00 PM we had all the chairs built and ready to paint. We primed them on Saturday and then the owner of the factory came in and sprayed two chairs each color on Sunday so they would be ready to deliver on Monday. He was also going to attached decals on the backs of the giant chairs that said “NOBAMA,” which you will see became a problem later.
Signage for Chairs:
Also on Saturday, we needed to get moving on the signs that needed to be put on the 8-foot chairs as well as the 12 foot chair at the office. We were going to print them on the plastic that political yard signs are printed on. We had a local print shop that could make signs as large 4′ x 5′, so we started working on the signage with the goal of getting them ordered by noon on Saturday so she could have them ready for use on Monday to put on the chairs. We took the “Empty Chair = Empty Promises of Barack Obama” theme from the Press Release we had written (See attached) and listed the broken promises.
Important Legal Issues:
At this point I decided to check with our attorney because I was concerned about how what we were doing would be interpreted under federal election law. I emailed a copy of the sign design to our attorney asking if this would be considered electioneering and also how should I pay for these things; could I pay through our 501(c)4 or should I pay through our State PAC which is what we use for all other campaign expenses? The answers he gave us were key to our plan. What we were doing is called Issue Advocacy. The Issue was President Obama’s Broken Promises and failed policies. Our 501(c)4 is legally allowed to do Issue Advocacy and as long as we did not say, “Vote President Obama out of Office” or “Vote for Romney,” we were not electioneering. We could pay for the signs out of our 501(c) 4 without any reporting required. However, we decided that we would have to remove the “NOBAMA” signs from the back of the chairs, just to be sure that we were not violating federal election law.
Furthermore, this gave us a huge opportunity that could have a significant impact on the election. Since this was an issue campaign, we were now able to make a robocall to every registered voter in the County asking them to put an empty chair in their front yard on Wednesday to symbolize the empty promises of this President, and then spell out all of those empty promises on the call. To the vast majority of people hearing our call, these factual criticisms of the President would be something most of them had never heard of before, since the major news sources had been hiding them from the public all year. This call had the potential to be a game changer and the President’s visit gave us the legal vehicle to make the call.
Preparing the Press Release:
I was able to take a picture of the large chairs under construction so that I could send it with the Press Release we would be delivering to the Press on Sunday for Monday release. I also would send a PDF of the signs we were having printed listing the President’s failed promises with the release. We got our Press Release ready and we included a statement that said, “The fact that the President feels like he has to come to Portage County to campaign is a clear indication that they are concerned about losing the vote here in November in a county where he won handily if 2008.” Our members are in touch with the voters in the community and we know that the polls are way off. His taking time to be interviewed on small local radio stations shows how desperate his campaign is for votes. If he can’t win Portage County, he can’t win Ohio. If he can’t win Ohio, he is going to be a one-term President.” The point was to make it clear that his visit was a “rescue mission” that he was trying to save the vote in a County where they had dominated for 50 years. This would be our main talking point throughout the campaign, along with the failed promises listed in the release. Our goal was to plant the idea in the minds of voters that the unthinkable, in the minds of many and based on press stories, could happen and that this President could actually lose Portage County and Ohio and not be re-elected. It would become surprising how effective we would be in getting that message out to the public – thanks to the “giant chair hook”!
The Campaign Begins:
The Press Release went out as planned on Sunday, September 23,and on Monday morning and it was mentioned in the local newspaper’s front page story on the President’s visit. It was just a paragraph, but it mentioned the empty chairs protest and the theme of them representing the President’s empty promises. Monday morning we called the news director of the main talk radio station in our market – WNIR – and offered to give him some quotes about our protest. Though this station almost never has guests on the air for interviews, in the past they have been willing to run quotes from our organization during the news which their on-air personalities and callers would then comment on. He had seen the Press Release and the mention in paper and thought the whole empty chair idea was terrific. He allowed me to record several segments that basically included every word of the Press Release, including the quote about the President coming here because he was in trouble in a normally safe county, and the full list of broken promises. The station played the quote on-air all day Monday and the phone lines lit up. By Monday night everyone in the Community had heard about putting an empty chair in their front yard to protest the President’s empty promises, and people were already emailing us pictures of the empty chair in their yards!
The Giant Chair gets Built:
On Monday, September 24, the really big 12 foot chair had not yet been built in our front yard or painted. We could have easily just put one of the colorful 8-foot chairs in our front yard because they were already finished on Monday, and no one would have known any different. However, our members knew that we needed the really big chair to get the coverage we wanted for our message. Monday afternoon they went to work and got it built. It was huge! Tuesday they would paint it bright yellow! This determination to stick with the plan and follow through would prove to become one of the largest parts of this successful counter campaign and is a credit to the drive and determination of our members.
Counter Campaign Strategy:
The problem most counter campaigns have is that they focus only on making a statement the day of the event. In talking with various political consultants about our plans, I was told that what you really want is to time your activities to get something in the newspaper the day before the President’s visit or the day of the President’s visit, because you are more likely to get space or air time, and people are tuned in and looking for information. Furthermore, we wanted to make sure that we could get long-term benefit for the time, effort and money we were expending. So here are somethings we decided to do.
First, on Monday a County Commissioner who was elected by the TEA Party in 2010 made an announcement to the press that since this was a campaign trip by the President, and not official government business, that the County would need to bill the Obama Campaign for services provided by the County Sheriff and EMS departments. This story was run as the lead front page story in Tuesday’s morning newspaper the day before the President arrived. This was a great start.
Then on Tuesday we did a Media Alert that included a picture of the Giant Empty Chair outside of our office, including the address where they could get a picture of it. The alert also indicated that we were asking people to put a chair out in their yards, and that we would be driving our colorful 8-foot empty chairs around Kent in pickup trucks before, during and after the President’s speech. It explained that our members and other people from Northeast Ohio TEA Party Groups would be protesting during the event across from Kent’s Old Front campus from 4:00 PM until 6:00 PM on State Route 59 so that they could get pictures and do interviews. Because of the Media Alert, the local Record Courier newspaper had a full color picture of our Giant Empty Chair in the paper on Wednesday morning. The Akron Beacon Journal came and took pictures on Wednesday morning and interviewed our members for the newspaper. The Kent State Student Newspaper and Campus Television Station did interviews and took pictures of the Giant Empty Chair. Other newspapers ran full versions of our Press Release.
Then we made the robocall. We sent a 60 second message to 50,000 homes that represented 80,000 registered voters in the county. (Those were all the phone numbers we had, there are actually 110,000 voters in the County but we could not find phone numbers for the rest.) The message we sent is written out below.
You Gotta Love it When a Plan Comes Together!
Now our people were working hard putting everything together, but like the saying goes, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity!” Because of our preparation, we got several breaks that really put us over the top. First, when I came in to the office on Wednesday morning, one of our members was sitting in my office with a big smile on his face. He said that he had put out his empty chair last night with a Romney and Mandel sign. He was sitting in his living room watching TV and he heard a knock on the door. It was Channel 19 TV from Cleveland wanting to talk to him about the empty chair in his yard!!! Better yet, this member happens to be a Democrat, a former union member and a Vietnam Vet!!! He did an excellent interview where he said that as a Democrat he wanted to give Romney and Ryan a chance to turn things around, that the President had not kept his promises about unemployment, and that they had two sons who could not find good work! Touchdown!!! That aired on two Cleveland TV stations the night before the President’s visit. (View it here!)
Then we got the big prize. We had been told that the President would be coming to campus via helicopter, which is why we decided to have our protest away from campus on a busy street to get maximum exposure. At about noon, I looked out the window of my office and I saw big highway department trucks coming down both sides of the state route putting orange cones at every driveway. I knew that the President’s plans had to have changed. The Beacon Journal reporters showed up shortly after and confirmed that the President would be coming to campus by motorcade and that he would have no choice but to drive within 30 feet of our Giant Yellow Empty Chair with the huge signs saying “Empty Chair = Empty Promises of Barack Obama”!!!! It doesn’t get any better than this! We jumped into action. I immediately sent out a robocall to our members instructing everyone from the Northern Townships in the County to follow our original plan to meet across from campus. I instructed our members from the Southern Townships to come to our office to prepare a special protest for our President. We had been putting regular-sized empty chairs in our yard, now we expanded that plan by putting 100 yards of empty chairs along State Route 43 running from our office north toward Kent on farm property owned by one of our members. Every chair had an “Empty Promises” sign on it and in between each chair we had a Romney or a Mandel sign. Our members did the rest, standing behind the chairs waiving signs as the President’s motorcade drove by!!!
Across from Campus our members met as planned at 4:00 PM. We had close to 100 people lining the sidewalk for several blocks waiving Romney and Mandel Signs as well as homemade signs and TEA Party Signs. In the two hours we were protesting at least 10,000 cars came by in the four lane road with at least 40% of them honking horns in approval of our protest. We were interviewed by CBS Radio and the Kent Campus TV Station. The pickup trucks carrying the colorful 8-foot chairs drove right through the crowd of people going to see the President and drove all over town. Tens of thousands of people saw the chairs and got to read the huge signs that detail the President’s broken promises.
While the President was inside speaking to 6,600 people who were already going to vote for him, and having the media deliver his talking points, we were able to use his visit to accomplish the following:
- Call 80,000 voters in our county with an explicit message that detailed his failed Presidency
- Expose our message that the President was here because he was in danger of losing in an area that he had handily won in 2008 and that if he could not win here, he could not win in Ohio, to hundreds of thousands of voters through the newspapers printing our complete press release, the talk radio station running our quotes in the news breaks on Monday, and the TV coverage on Tuesday night.
- Show the community that the opposition to the President was strong by making our “Empty Chair = Empty Promises” the talk of the town which made it “cool” to be against Barack Obama.
- Communicated explicit, factual reasons not to re-elect Barack Obama through our signs on our 8-foot chairs that were taken around town and are now permanently placed until the election at key intersections or on heavily travelled roads all over the County.
The bottom line was that everyone knew what the President was going to say and do, they didn’t know what the TEA Party was going to say and do, and we let them know loud and clear. The way the campaign was conducted was accepted as creative and unique by the public and the media which increased our credibility within the community. It was a smart, non-violent campaign that involved the entire community in a low impact but highly effective way. As I write this there are empty chairs in yards all over the County. We spent $750 for signs, $500 for wood and paint and other materials, and $1,200 for robocalls. That comes out to a total of only $2,450!!! The best money we ever spent. The President’s trip probably cost the taxpayers, the campaign and local communities $1,000,000. We think this campaign will be the turning point in this election and will give the Portage County TEA Party the upper hand going into November for our entire slate of candidates.
We understand that all groups are not big enough or do not have the resources that our group was able to bring to bear on this campaign. However, by sharing our thought process, the timing, the examples, and the details, we hope that other groups can see how they do not need that much money or effort to make a big impact. If your group just had the empty chair idea and was able to do the Press Release, you would have had a huge impact for no cost. If you worked hard to get the radio station to pick it up the story and pushed the local TV stations you would have gotten even more exposure at no cost. If you could have built the one big empty chair, which took four volunteers about four hours using scrap lumber, you could have gotten even more coverage and your cost would have been less than $100. The key to Guerilla War is to destroy the enemy by exploiting their weaknesses and by using as few of your resources as possible. We think we won this battle against the strongest force that our enemies could bring against us. Political consultants are already saying this was one of the most effective counter campaigns ever conducted against a Presidential candidate in a hostile environment. We can do anything we put our minds to, so never give up, never concede a single vote, always fight to win regardless of the odds.