Among the seven candidates in the recent Republican primary for Oklahoma’s Fifth District Congressional seat were a current state House member (“Candidate A”), a former state House member who previously ran for this seat 4 years ago (“Candidate B”), and the former director of the largest Baptist church camp in the country (“Candidate C”).
Here is what happened on Election Day: “Candidate A” received 18% of the vote while “Candidate B” received 32% of the vote.
And in a stunning and surprising win, “Candidate C” (the former church camp director) received 34% of the vote.
But those results only tell half the story…
Who Are These Guys?
As my buddies Trait and Brett have previously and masterfully documented here and here, Oklahoma’s primary season was quite entertaining and many lessons should be learned from many of the races.
But this Fifth District race was especially interesting because of the unlikely result.
In reality, this primary was supposed to be a two-horse race between “Candidate A” (who had the backing of much of the business community) and “Candidate B” (who had been actively campaigning for the office for the past 2 years).
But something funny happened on the way to the voting booth.
As the campaign really began heating up, it became apparent that there were three candidates who were going to battle for the nomination and not two as previously believed.
“Candidate A” had raised A LOT of cash and had some decent TV ads. He had also gotten some good press over the last couple of years in the state House and had viable name ID.
Unfortunately, apart from that he was a very bland candidate with no real narrative to set him apart from “Candidate B” and “Candidate C”. It was almost as if he was a “zombie candidate” in that he ran a decent, well funded campaign but did not do nearly enough to set himself apart and motivate enough voters to cast their ballots for him.
On the flip side, “Candidate B” had been campaigning for two years, had also raised a ton of money, was very active among the grassroots, and had spent big money on TV ads that highlighted (over and over) his military service. He constantly communicated how he had helped “prosecute” the War in Iraq and how he had won a bronze star for his service.
That was his narrative, and he pushed it and pushed it and pushed it.
That leaves “Candidate C”. A political newcomer, “Candidate C” quietly built a massive volunteer army, went to every political and civic event on the calendar, and used his church connections to build name ID and raise a substantial amount of money little by little around the district.
Moreover, the narrative he pushed could be encapsulated in his campaign slogan: “We’ll never change the status quo in Washington BY SENDING THE STATUS QUO TO WASHINGTON” (emphasis mine).
Armed with this message and narrative as the ultimate political outsider, not only did “Candidate C” force his way into a runoff, but his win in the primary caught many people off guard and even had “Washington Republicans scratching their heads”.
In the end, “Candidate C” came out of nowhere and “Candidate B” finished strong partly because of the narratives they pushed and how they stood apart from their fellow competitors.
Unfortunately “Candidate A” somehow forgot the age old phrase that “People don’t buy the steak, they buy the sizzle” and lost out on reaching the runoff with a disappointing result.
What Can Potential Candidates Learn?
There is a great lesson to be learned from this race and others from around Oklahoma in regards to how candidates can differentiate themselves from their opponents. These lessons are especially important before primaries when candidates actually agree on many issues.
So how do candidates stand apart from the crowd when running for public office and avoid becoming “zombie candidates” with no real flair or sizzle?
1. Push a Distinct Narrative/Identity: The example from the Fifth District race captures perfectly the role a narrative/identity plays in picking up votes.
2. Push a Different and Distinct Message: While this may be easy during a general election, the Democratic primary for governor in Oklahoma is a great example of how one candidate stood apart from her competitor before the primary by pushing an entirely different message.
In what ended as a surprise win, the message of the current Lieutenant Governor during her gubernatorial campaign has been one of social issues such as equal pay for women, children’s issues, and education reform. She has pushed these issues in a very calm, cool, and personal way and in a consistent manner.
However, her competitor, the current Attorney General, focused his message mainly on jobs and the economy. While his message was definitely timely and adequate, it did not convey the same type of emotional response or passion of his opponent’s message. While some say the Attorney General was also outworked and out campaigned, the difference in message was also very obvious.
Subsequently, though he was heavily favored to win, the Attorney General narrowly lost to the Lieutenant Governor in the gubernatorial primary by 1,493 votes.
3. Campaign Differently than Your Competition: Lastly, a great lesson can be learned from taking the high road and avoiding the type of negative campaign tactics the electorate at large does not appreciate.
An example of this occurred during the Republican primary for Attorney General in Oklahoma. With both candidates working hard with much the same message, one candidate decided to go negative in a TV spot. The strategy apparently backfired as this local blog points to the fact that the candidate who was attacked saw his poll numbers and fundraising efforts increase mightily in the weeks after the ad aired.
It must be pointed out that the candidate who was attacked never fired back at his opponent but rather stayed on message and stayed above the fray. In the end he won the primary handily by 12 points even though he did not raise nearly as much money as his opponent.
In summary, these few examples show how candidates must run their campaigns in such a way that allows them to stand out in the crowd. If you are a candidate, whether through your narrative, your message, or by the way you campaign, differentiating yourself in any way from your fellow candidates is vitally important if you truly want to win your election.
And if you do these things, you can and will avoid becoming the dreaded “zombie candidate” in your race.