Election season. Ah, it’s fun times. I always look forward to it, the palm cards, yard signs, door-to-door, fundraiser and sign wave craziness… but sometimes, I’m just ready for the negativity to end. Am I alone in feeling this way? At our training sessions, new leaders often ask how they can show contrast between themselves and their opponents without “going negative.” It’s a good question- and it’s a skill, so I think it’s important that we talk about it.
1. Don’t be afraid to illustrate differences.
Elections are inherently about conflict- there is good and evil, right and wrong, liberty and oppression, and voters must choose between them on election day. Showing contrast is an important campaign strategy, particularly for challengers. With the high retention rate for elected officials from the local level through Congress, as a candidate, you are asking voters to reject the person who they know, who they may have voted for previously, in favor of you. Choose the devil they don’t know over the one they do, so to speak. You must give them good reasons to vote for you. Part of that is illustrating the differences between them, the voting electorate, and the incumbent, or other candidate.
2. Hold them accountable.
In a republic where we democratically elect our rulers, it’s important to hold those rulers accountable. And even if your campaign isn’t victorious, discussing voting records and illustrating bad choices to the voters is an important part of holding government accountable.
3. Understand the strategy.
Incumbents or favored candidates will use the “incumbent” strategies, where they appeal to the trappings of office, their current title, their aura of prestige and power to illustrate their legitimacy. Challengers, however, must use a different strategy if they are to be victorious- they must draw the voters’ attention to the opponent’s record, and call for change.
4. Never touch the family.
In a campaign I worked several years ago, my family was attacked on the blog of a key member of the opponent’s campaign, so I can tell you from personal experience- this is not ok. Please, don’t do it.
5. Illustrate votes and stances on the issues.
If you keep your contrasting messages during your campaign focused on the issues and show the votes that your opponent made, you will be able to resist the personal mudslinging that can often ensue. And after all- aren’t campaigns supposed to be about the issues?
6. If your opponent attacks you, respond.
I once worked with the man whose firm created the Swift Boat Ads during the Bush/Kerry campaign and he told me something that has really stuck with me- he said the entire election might have been different if Kerry had responded to the Swift Boat ads when they first came out. Learn from this: if your opponent attacks you, respond. Now, I say that with a caution- measure the importance. If it’s a campaign ad shown throughout your district in which your stances on the issues are pulled into question? Probably ought to respond to that. If however the opponent makes an offhand snide remark about you on the local radio show- probably not important enough to respond to. You have to be willing to let some things roll off your back, or you’ll turn what was a one-newsday issues into a two, three, perhaps even four-newsday problem. But when an attack comes that must be answered, answer it.
7. Along those lines, answer in kind.
If your opponent takes out a full ad in the newspaper hammering you, don’t record a radio ad responding to it. You will likely hit different audiences, meaning that the radio audience now knows about the newspaper ad when they wouldn’t have otherwise, and the newspaper audience doesn’t see your response. Respond in kind, and respond quickly.
8. Be willing to use surrogates.
You might not be the best person to answer every charge from the opponent, or to draw every comparison. If there is someone within the community or your campaign who is better equipped than you, don’t be afraid to utilize their strengths.
9. Clarify what comes from you.
Sometimes a PAC or issue group will engage in negative campaigning on your behalf- because of federal laws, you as the candidate cannot be advised in advance of what their message will be, what form it will be in (mailer, radio, etc), or when it will hit. But you may take a backlash as a result. For example, in 2004 a PAC sent out a mailer that was very negative toward my candidate’s opponent, and we received a lot of angry phone calls and emails. In cases such as these, it’s best to simply make clear that your campaign had nothing to do with the attack, and try to move on as swiftly as possible.
10. Never, ever make a reference to your opponent’s voting record or issue stances unless you are 110% certain that it is true.
Credibility once lost is difficult to regain- do due diligence to know the truth before you speak it. You owe the voters nothing less.
If you’re looking for candidates to support, use these tips to help you determine who is running a more honorable campaign. If you’re helping a candidate you believe in, use these strategies as you work towards his or her election. Remember, talking about the issues and voting records is not negative campaigning- so let’s stick to that, and let the voters have their say.