Election Day is more than just the day voters pass their judgment on your candidate and campaign. It’s the culmination of months of emotion.
Whether you’re the candidate, campaign manager, or just the intern, it’s important to keep those emotions in check in the hours after the polls close.
Don’t Trash Your Vanquished Opponents
The campaign was nasty, brutish and longer than you ever expected. Still, there’s no need to trash your opponent. Bear in mind the cautionary example of Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who went after his Republican primary opponent after handily defeating him in August.
“To Brian Ellis, you owe my family and this community an apology for your disgusting, despicable smear campaign,” Amash said during his victory speech. “You had the audacity to try to call me today, after running a campaign that was called the nastiest in the country.” Ellis had called Amash “al-Qaeda’s best friend in Congress.”
On the flip side, if you do lose, call to concede (more on that below) and to congratulate the winner on his or her well-fought campaign. Don’t blame money. It’s almost as crass as talking salaries at a dinner party.
Ken Cuccinelli placed the blame for his 2013 loss to Terry McAuliffe on “being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million.” He held the RGA responsible for that, which didn’t make him any friends in the GOP, nor did it register with any voters who sided with his Democratic rival.
Don’t Mimic Howard Dean’s Primal Scream
You, your supporters, your donors and staffers are all pumped up, and the energy is rippling through your campaign office. But when you hit that stage and face those cameras, don’t let your emotions get away from you. In victory or defeat, a calm, cool, collected candidate is all anyone wants to see.
We all remember when Howard Dean was plotting his way to the White House in 2004—or at least to the Democratic nomination—until a wild yelp on caucus night in Des Moines made him look, well, crazy. Don’t scream. That’s what the privacy of your own hotel room is for.
Dean was only trying to pump up his supporters, the Deaniacs, after a disappointing third-place finish behind the two Johns—Edwards and Kerry. Still, his yell wrote headlines, including the “battle cry that backfired,” and he never recovered.
It’s fine to give a shout-out to your supporters, to bask in their adulation and in the lights of the local camera crews. But keep one thought in the back of your mind: YouTube.
Don’t Call and Concede Only to Call and Retract
If you’re going to pick up the phone and dial your opponent (or have your staffer do it), make sure enough of the ballots are in to call the race.
Forget the projections, or what your consultant says about the bellwether county or precinct yet to report. Know for sure. It’s hard enough to have to call your opponent and congratulate him or her. “You’re a formidable opponent and a good man,” George W. Bush told Al Gore in 2000 before the vice president called him back to retract his concession.
Bob Dole’s campaign had a concession and retraction in 1996 in his race against President Clinton. Nelson Warfield, Dole’s press secretary, issued a statement conceding the race an hour and half before polls closed in the West. He hastily issued a retraction. “The fact is Bob Dole has conceded nothing” became a famous line from the second statement. Dole went on to give a gracious concession speech.
Don’t Deny the Obvious
If you’re a consultant and your client is on the verge of a defeat, don’t bother with campaign rhetoric about it being “too close to call.” This goes against the instincts of consultants who have spent months in the trenches working on behalf of their clients. But come Election Day, there’s not much more you can do—or spin. Unless there’s a good chance of a recount, start looking toward the next race.
Consider Karl Rove. The venerable GOP consultant was commenting on Fox News in 2012 when Ohio was called for President Obama. Despite the channel’s own projection for the incumbent, Rove kept up an aggressive tirade. “You’ve got to be careful about calling things when you have, like, 991 votes separating the two candidates and a quarter of the vote yet to count,” Rove said, after rattling off some dubious figures that favored a possible win for Mitt Romney.
Chris Wallace couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, folks, maybe not so fast,” he said. At the time of Rove’s remarks, Obama was well ahead in Ohio, which he went on to win. It was the verbal equivalent of tilting at windmills, which isn’t how a consultant should be remembered the day after an election.
Don’t Get Drunk Too Early
It might sound like common sense, but it happens often. The night of an election brings on a sense of euphoria for the consultants, journalists, and staffers whose lives have been consumed by the work of the preceding months. Drinks tend to flow on these occasions—especially if there’s an open bar.
Whether you’re on the air or in the War Room, it’s best to keep clear of the bar until the balloons have dropped, at which point you can just blend into the crowd.