Q: What do you think about using humor in debates to soften the candidate’s image?
A: Humor is a great rhetorical tool if—and this if is a whopper—the candidate has poise, judgment and timing. Think of the third Kennedy–Nixon debate when JFK was asked to apologize for President Truman’s statement that Nixon supporters could “go to hell.” Kennedy artfully sidestepped, saying, “I really don’t think there’s anything that I could say to President Truman that’s going to cause him, at the age of 76, to change his particular speaking manner. Perhaps Mrs. Truman can, but I don’t think I can.” The problem is, most efforts at light humor and canned jokes fall fl at. Earlier this year, Mitt Romney joked that his five sons were serving their country by working on his campaign. He later noted, “That was meant to be a sort of funny line, but when it’s read as a serious line, that can be a problem.” So humor’s great, but the devil’s in the delivery. When in doubt, be boring. Better dull than dead.
Q: Our media consultants say they can’t help with debate preparation. Isn’t that standard as part of doing media?
A: It should be, but is it part of their contract? And how much advance notice did you give them? You still have leverage if the consultant is owed expenses or part of their fee. If not, you could throw yourself at a quality lacking in politics: mercy.
Q: Because of the anticipated high turnout, we plan to hand out materials at voting locations rather than go door to door on Election Day. That’s our best use of resources, right?
A: As long as you have a heavy persuasion program, and the turnout model matches your likely voters, and some other group can be trusted to handle overall GOTV (e.g., the coordinated campaign)—sure, your plan makes sense. But do verify that the GOTV plan is real.
Q: What are psychographics? Examples would be great.
A: It’s a fancy word that refers to targeting voters according to social class, lifestyle, moral values and opinions (e.g., hunting, church attendance, TV viewing habits). These variables are different from demographics (e.g., age and gender) and behavioral variables (e.g., voting in primaries). The gold standard is the Bush 2004 campaign, which analyzed magazine readership, car ownership and other variables to win an election they were at risk of losing.
Q: When do we need a transition plan?
A: The first rule is winning. So don’t measure the drapes quite yet. But to be ready, designate a discreet team member who can devote time to outline in detail the staff positions, departments and budget status of the office your candidate is seeking. Also, direct them to establish a vetting process for job applicants. Then, the morning after the election, if you do indeed win, fully brief the candidate on his or her next steps.
Q: I may be making the ultimate mistake—asking for advice about losing—but I think there is little we can do to turn our campaign around and we need a soft landing.
A: Here’s the drill: Pay all the bills, send thank you notes, clean up the database, help staff look for jobs, shut down offices, file end-of-the-year disclosure reports, send W-2s to staff and 1099s to independent contractors. Soft landings make future launches possible—especially after a loss, when you need friends and colleagues for the next go-around.
Craig Varoga has run local, state and presidential campaigns for the past 20 years. He currently specializes in independent expenditures as a partner at Independent Strategies.
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