Campaign 101: Learning from Major Campaigns, Offers Insights into Running Local Elections
This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.
In the same way that high school football players can learn a lot about the game by watching the pros play in the Super Bowl, local political activists should be able to learn a lot about campaigns by watching the players in the presidential race.
By the same token, the people who work in presidential races can easily forget the basic rules of politics they learned when they started out as local political activists. In fact if you examine closely the inside workings of the Kerry campaign, as the editors of Newsweek did in the new book, ‘Election 2004’, it is clear that the people who called the shots for the Democratic presidential candidate made several basic mistakes they could have avoided if they had remembered what they learned in Campaign 101 back in the day.
John Kerry had the opportunity to beat George W. Bush. During the presidential campaign, a majority of American voters felt that the country was heading in the wrong direction and faulted the President for his handling of the economy and Iraq. Voters were searching for an alternative to re-electing the President but the Democratic candidate did not run a good enough campaign to take advantage of the political vacuum.
These are some of things that the Kerry campaign commanders should have learned in basic training. Don’t forget these rules when you run your own campaign:
1. Communicate a clear and consistent message
2. Persuade, don’t educate
3. Respond quickly to attacks
4. Run a tight ship with a clear chain of command
COMMUNICATE A CLEAR AND CONSISTENT MESSAGE
My guess is that if you went back two years and watched all the cable TV political talk shows and listened to the Republican pundits talking about President Bush, you would hear them all saying pretty much the same thing over and over again. And that was the President was a strong and principled leader. Early in 2004, the Bush operatives tweaked the message and started saying that the President was a strong and principled leader and John Kerry was a flip flopper. The consistency of the Republicans was a reflection of the strong message discipline of the Bush campaign.
In contrast, Senator Kerry was never able to focus on a message. At the beginning of his effort, the message was a vote for the Democratic Senator was a vote for a strong and secure America. Kerry talked his service in Vietnam to illustrate his strength and his commitment to national security. But along the way, the discipline of the Democratic candidate wavered. Kerry went from being the “real deal” to being a “new direction”, depending upon the vagaries of his mood and public opinion. Swing voters were never able to get a fix on the moving target. While the Republican presidential campaign reflected a single minded determination to capture the attention of a busy electorate, the Democratic campaign message bobbed and weaved from one week to another.
And it isn’t like 2004 was the first time that the Democratic President was absent without a message. In the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. clearly ran as a “compassionate conservative” while Al Gore alternated weekly between being a “raging moderate” and a “fighting conservative”. Journalist Mary Drew wrote “Gore changed themes as often as he changed costumes.” Washington Post columnist Joel Auerbach who covered the Vice President’s campaign was even more acerbic when he wrote:
“Gore’s brain is like the sound system on an airplane. He’s
got some classical music up there. Some rock and roll, some
country, and a steady commentary from air traffic controllers.
The challenge for Gore has always been to figure out which
channel he should let his audiences hear.”
A message should be the sales pitch that you make to voters during the course of your campaign. It is what the ad people call branding. Was John Kerry for a “strong and secure” America or was he the “real deal” or a “new direction” for America? Voters didn’t have the time to figure something out that the best and the brightest in the Kerry campaign should have figured out themselves.
PERSUADE, DON’T EDUCATE
An issue is not a message. During his presidential campaign, Senator Kerry talked a lot about the issues of the day and carefully outlined the differences between his position on the issues and the stands of the President. But in the last analysis, the swing, independent voters who decide the outcome of elections do not vote on the basis of issues, they vote after they size up the personal characteristics of the candidates.
There is an outmoded civic class model of voting behavior. The template is that the voter compares his or her positions on the issues with the positions of the candidates and then votes for the candidate whose issue position is closest to the voter. That model may show how strong partisan Republicans and Democrats make their choices, but it does not explain the machinations of swing or independent voters. Swing voters are personality driven and they listen to the candidates only to make a judgment about the character of the candidates.
So you can talk about issues until the cows come home, but unless the candidate uses his or her discussion of the issues to make a point about the kind of person the candidate is, then they are just wasting your breath. So while John Kerry tried to educate voters that he was closer to them on a long laundry list of issues, President Bush talked about terrorism and Iraq to make the point that he was a man of strength of strength and principle whether you agreed with his decision to go to war or not. Discussion of the message can also undermine a campaign message. At the beginning of his campaign, the Democratic presidential nominee undercut his message of strength and security with conflicting explanations of his position on Iraq that made him look weak to swing voters.
RESPOND QUICKLY TO ATTACKS
The turning point in the presidential race was the successful attack against Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. With the help of Bush campaign counsel, Ben Ginsberg, the Swift Boat Veterans turned the tide in the presidential race.
John Kerry had reported for duty at a successful Democratic convention which was a forum for a discussion of Senator Kerry’s bravery during the war in Vietnam. The foundation for the campaign that the Kerry campaign had cleverly built in July in Boston came crashing down in August when the Swifties, with a relatively small national media buy attacked the Senator’s record during and after his service in Vietnam. The Swift Boat Veterans parlayed a small media buy into an avalanche of free media as TV news outlets played the Swift Boat ads over and over again.
The Kerry campaign at first failed to directly respond to the swift boat attacks. The decision makers in the Democratic campaign felt that Americans were tired of negative campaigns, so the Senator and his strategy team whistled past the graveyard and hoped nothing bad would happen.
Well, you know that in politics when you hope nothing bad happens, something bad almost always happens. After a successful convention, the Kerry campaign lost the initiative that it hoped it could keep up through the summer. It was a full three weeks before Senator Kerry engaged the Swift Boat Veterans head on and then it was too late. Not only did the Swift Boat Veterans’ hits stick, but Senator Kerry looked weak after letting his former comrades walk all over him for the better part of a month. What makes Senator Kerry’s decision even more puzzling was that he had been Michael Dukakis’s Lieutenant Governor when the infamous Willie Horton ad finished off the Democratic Presidential nominee in 1988.
RUN A TIGHT SHIP WITH A CLEAR CHAIN OF COMMAND
Republican presidential candidates and campaign operatives seem to thrive in the button down culture of corporate America. The two presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, from Karl Rove to campaign volunteers in Ohio at the bottom represented a clear chain of command that transmitted strategic decisions at the top into actions at the precinct level at the bottom.
The Kerry campaign, in contrast was in a constant state of turmoil. The Senator fired his first campaign manager, Jim Jordan and undercut his second manager Mary Beth Cahill. By the fall, there were two separate power centers within the Kerry campaign fighting for control and openly airing their differences with each other with leaks to the press.
The problem here is clear. How can you convince voters that you can resolve disputes between the Israelis and Arabs if you can’t get your own staff to play nice with each other and get along? If the Bush campaign was the classic organizational pyramid, then the Kerry campaign was the Tower of Babel.
All of these rules may seem too obvious to write about in this magazine for political activists. But they weren’t obvious enough to Senator Kerry or the people running his campaign. Forewarned is forearmed, so don’t make the same mistakes when you’re running your own campaigns. Hopefully Democrats will do better and they pick a strong and decisive presidential candidate in 2008 that can show that he or she is tough enough to make a decision and stick to it.