by Robert Knodell
In recent years, coverage of political campaigns has begun to mirror coverage of sports or financial markets. This is a welcome development for those us who are political junkies, as there are numerous publications (such as this one), channels, blogs, and social media platforms that cover even down-ballot campaigns in blow-by-blow detail.
Many times the coverage revolves around the fascinating “horse race” aspect of a campaign. Public polling data often resembles the baseball standings on the sports page. Fundraising numbers are scrutinized in a similar fashion to corporate financial reports. A major endorsement often carries a buzz mirroring that of a major free agent signing by your favorite NFL team. And political experts predict winners, losers, and toss-up races with tip sheets that resemble investment analysts rating stocks or Vegas oddsmakers predicting sports scores.
But despite the wall-to-wall coverage of both major and minor campaign happenings, some common mistakes still fly under the radar. Every candidate and every campaign is different and unique, but some very common mistakes are repeated with increasing frequency in today’s local and legislative campaigns. Here are three of them:
1. CAMPAIGNING ON MESSAGES THAT DON’T RELATE TO THE DAILY LIVES OF VOTERS
Make no mistake, voters want to know candidates’ qualifications for the offices they seek, candidates’ views and philosophies, and what groups are endorsing or supporting candidates. But we are living in a political environment today where cynicism and mistrust of politicians and governmental institutions is at an all-time high, and active participation in the political process by the public is at an all-time low.
Most importantly, voters want to know HOW candidates’ experiences, issue platforms, and plans will impact the daily lives and aspirations of voters and their families. This is true of senior citizens, business owners, young single mothers, or most any voter. Whether a candidate is campaigning on a platform of tax cuts, education reform, or raising the minimum wage, voters want to know WHY and HOW those plans and promises will impact their daily lives, their economic livelihood, their religious and social values, and the future of their loved ones.
Many of us would agree that the pinnacle of success in American politics is being elected to serve two terms as President. If you look at America’s four most recent two-term Presidents (Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama)—whether you supported them or agreed with them or not—each was able to run campaigns that connected in a more direct and personal way with more voters.
In each case, their opponents—no matter how much more capable or qualified or better aligned with the politics of the country they might have been—seemed more distant and made less of a personal connection.
The lesson to be learned is to run on the issues that you are passionate about and to present sincere and relevant messages and contrasts to voters in ways that will cause those voters to see the potential difference you’ll make for them.
2. NOT SPREADING YOUR MESSAGES TO VOTERS IN PLACES WHERE THEY’LL SEE OR HEAR IT
Twenty years ago, we lived in a country where the vast majority of people watched the same three network television stations, read newspapers daily, listened to local AM and FM radio stations, had land-line telephones, and perhaps viewed a handful of mass market-content cable channels.
Today, people watch hundreds of television channels through a wide range of mediums, including cable, satellite, and web streaming, and they can watch them on their own timetable with DVR or web-based devices, often skipping commercials. Many have replaced traditional radio entertainment with satellite or streaming content. People get their news from an endless array of sources, with some still including newspapers, but other relying on a whole host of websites and social media feeds. And more and more are abandoning home-based landline telephones every day.
Reaching voters is harder than ever. Candidates cannot run away from traditional television, radio, newspaper, and telephone advertising and messaging, but need to supplement those with other mediums to reach voters who may not be consuming traditional programming and products.
The irony in campaigns is that in this modern era of such a broad segmentation of media consumption, good old-fashioned door-to-door campaign and direct mail voter contact has become more efficient and more important than ever in reaching voters. Smart campaigns will modernize their mass-media messaging and data collection and usage, while at the same time sticking to the tried-and-true, meat-and-potatoes door knocking and mailbox messaging.
3. FAILING TO FOCUS ON LOCAL, SMALL-DOLLAR FUNDRAISING
The subject of money and politics is topic and a debate for another column. But without a doubt, we live in an era of expensive campaigns and large donations.
While large donations pack a buzz and sizzle that attracts media and chattering-class attention, many candidates make the mistake of chasing large donations exclusively while forsaking lower-dollar fundraising efforts from potential local supporters.
Local contributions from individuals—even if the dollar amounts are very small—carry more than just monetary value that supplements the large checks. They are the fruits of candidates’ efforts to spread their message to people who can vote for and support them.
When friends and neighbors invest dollars in a campaign, whether the amounts are large or small, they become stakeholders in their chosen candidate’s campaign, and will typically go the extra mile in other ways to help ensure victory on Election Day. Old-fashioned methods such as backyard picnics or living room events, direct mail appeals to friends and families, and personal solicitations, combined with more modern social media and web-based appeals will broaden the base of your supporters and as well help fulfill the campaign budget.
Look for a candidate with the trifecta of a sincerely-held platform and messages that closely relate to the hopes and ambitions of their voters, well-tailored plans to spread those messages to places where they will be heard by the most voters, and with a broad base of local supporters willing to invest in the campaign. What you will see is a candidate likely to win the “horse race” and finish atop the standings on Election Day.
Robert Knodell is partner at Barklage & Knodell, a Republican political strategy and consulting firm located in Jefferson City.