There’s nothing more annoying than hecklers or protestors disrupting a campaign event except, maybe, when those hecklers are high-profile surrogates for your opponent. It was a strategy Mitt Romney recently deployed in Florida, dispatching big-name backers – including Reps. Connie Mack (Fla.), Mary Bono Mack (Ca.) and Jason Chaffetz (Utah) – to attend rival Newt Gingrich’s campaign events.
Even Sen. John McCain and former Sen. George LeMieux (Fla.) considered the Romney camp’s antics bad form, but the crashers successfully forced the Gingrich campaign off message and garnered massive media attention. Down-ballot candidates took note, and the crashing tactic is sure to be imitated later this cycle.
Going forward, your campaign is better off figuring out how to mitigate your opponent’s tactics than whining about the unfairness of it all. Here are some rules to live by when confronting campaign crashers:
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I previously discussed the importance of a strong advance operation for any campaign, whether it be paid staff or a volunteer force. It’s situations like this that make advance crucial. A key task of your advance team should be to note any VIPs — friend and foe — in attendance and communicate that information back to the traveling staff. More often than not this simply allows your candidate to give some local dignitary or other a shout out, but in the case of a rival’s surrogate in attendance, being forewarned allows you to prep your candidate, arm your press secretary with relevant talking points and formulate a plan to neutralize the opposition and prevent disruption of the event.
A crasher should be able to surprise your campaign exactly once. If your campaign is being routinely caught off guard by opponents’ surrogates—as the Gingrich team was—the first thing to do is tighten your advance operation.
Know thy enemy. Knowledge is power, and you can be sure that any campaign crasher will be well armed with talking points to use against your candidate and will target reporters attending the event. It’s essential that your campaign, particularly anyone talking to the press, have opposition research at his or her fingertips to be deployed in the event of a confrontation. Arm your press secretary with one-pagers to distribute to assembled reporters that debunk your opponents’ claims and highlight your candidate’s competitive advantages.
Keep your eye on the ball. Your campaign’s public events have two target audiences: undecided voters and the press. With rare exceptions, no one else matters—to focus firepower elsewhere is wasted time and effort. When your campaign is facing a challenging situation like this one, your field team should focus solely on ensuring assembled voters have a positive interaction with your candidate, and your press team should move to corral reporters and avoid process talk. Reporters rarely write about issues when they can write a juicy process story instead.
Case in point: the Gingrich campaign won nothing but an embarrassing news cycle when a campaign spokesman engaged directly with one of the Romney crashers, providing a sort of spectator sport for reporters. The media coverage focused wholly on the confrontation rather than on either campaign’s message.