Thursday, January 11, 2018

Advice for Candidates. Define your opponent without being nasty.

The first rule of campaigning is to decide who you are before your opponent decides who you are.  Maybe your opponent will ignore that rule.  

That creates your opportunity.

Candidates are often eager to go to work knocking on doors to meet people and sell themselves.  Because it is hard, tedious work candidates have the illusion that they must be doing something productive.  


Before you begin the work of selling, candidates need to decide what they are selling, and what are the alternatives. You are creating a choice for the voter.  

Sometimes candidates attempt to obscure the choice with an unpersuasive "Me Too" campaign.  I remember from my own past as a young candidate running against older opponents.  I felt insecure.  I attempted to show myself to be experienced, too.  Mistake. It looks desperate and it validates experience as an unalloyed virtue. I was selling the wrong thing.  It took me a while to realize that I was the fresh face candidate, not the experienced candidate.  A lot of people actually like "fresh face." 

Every powerful attribute has a positive implication and a negative one.  Your strength is your weakness.  Same for your opponent.

Experienced means knowledgeable, but also old-hat.
Wealthy means financially savvy, but also different from the non-rich.
Established means well known, but also a mysterious network faction of good ol' boys.
Dedicated on an particular issue also means johnny-one-note.

A candidate does not need to do "negative campaigning" in order to define an opponent.  Negative campaigning has enormous risk of backfiring.  This is particularly the case when campaigns start with a premise that they will accuse the opponent of something terrible and then concoct evidence to attempt to prove the case. People do that. I have seen it backfire.  

A better approach is suggested by the two recent comic panels by Scott Adams.

Notice what is happening here. The nasty dog is defining Alice with a compliment.  Voters observe compliments as more credible than criticism, since they appear to be a statement against ones own interest.

Here is another example:

A closer look.  A local campaign for a state office, Senate District 3 representing the Medford-Ashland area has drawn five interesting, credible candidates, four Democrats and the incumbent Republican.  The incumbent, Alan DeBoer, is, to my observation all of the following:
    A Republican. Prosperous.  Age 68. Philanthropic. Genuinely civic minded. Politically moderate. Loyal to Republicans. Mild mannered. Open. Gracious and patient when criticized.

Whichever Democrat wins the primary election will likely face DeBoer.  He or she need not attempt to diminish one of those attributes.  Better to do the opposite, and reverse the polarity of the virtue.
DeBoer Town Hall.  Waiting to ask tough questions.

DeBoer, such a good loyal Republican (in a Democratic district.)  DeBoer, so wealthy, made a giant pile as a car dealer, (but hopelessly out of touch with regular people.)  

By praising DeBoer for who he really is, a very prosperous Republican, the candidate quietly maneuvers him into creating a clear choice. Even DeBoer's acts of philanthropy create a divide.  However praiseworthy they may be--and I consider them very praiseworthy--they document the gulf in financial means between DeBoer as relatable representative and the average voter.  Can DeBoer possibly understand making car payments or clipping grocery coupons?

The strategy here need not be to make DeBoer look "bad."  Quite the opposite.  DeBoer doesn't present as a guy one can easily define as cruel or dislikable.  Just make him look like who he is, and point out the problem with it. 

This is not a formula for getting 100% of the votes.  A great many people will think DeBoer is just great.  Fellow Republicans, fellow Rotarians, fellow car dealers, fellow successful business people, fellow old friends of DeBoer from high school.  People who want a prosperous, white, male, loyal Republican representing them have their guy.  This approach is not scorched earth destruction of a political opponent.  It is simply positioning him as different from you, the candidate, and you are giving voters a choice.

DeBoer can respond.  It may be there are enough Republicans and prosperous people in the senate district that he can simply embrace the characterization.  He may seem nice and mild mannered enough that voters conclude he is a "good millionaire" and therefore OK.  DeBoer may be able to translate prosperity into being a "job creator."  

Yet even those responses create counter-backlash.  There are more employees than employers.  DeBoer's rejoinder as a "job creator" validates his employment practices as relevant. There are undoubtably some unhappy former employees eager to bad mouth DeBoer.  Every thrust has a parry. And every parry, another parry.

The Democrat will have a challenge: to make this a choice between DeBoer and him or her self. There are multiple sides to every coin.  The coin is out there for everyone to see.  The campaign will help define what people see when the look at that coin.


Anonymous said...

Maybe criticize the Taj Mahal he’s building right next to the homeless shelter in Ashland?
No,no too direct. Not Dilbert enough ...

Rick Millward said...

A quick look at Deboer's voting record indicates he's definitely leaning Regressive with respect to issues, making sure he is not a deciding vote on bills that pass with tight margins. Interesting that none of the recent bills have failed, which indicates a confident leadership in control of the agenda.