Politics is defined by some as the art of controlling your environment—something all too many hopefuls fail to actually achieve when paving the way for a campaign.
There are likely hundreds (if not thousands) of people around the country thinking about the possibility of running for office every single day. But for the ones who actually take that leap, pre-campaign positioning is often a lost art.
Many candidates fail to properly lay the ground work for a campaign, or work to position their candidacy in the best possible light, before actually announcing. Worse, some candidates wait until they’re in the thick of the communication phase of a campaign before doing this.
The behind-the-scenes work of lining up potential donors and prepping media ahead of a run can often be far more important than actually launching. After all, your candidate must be in position to hit the ground running immediately following the formal announcement. The truth is that campaigns at all levels struggle with this.
I once met with a top tier congressional recruit just as the campaign was getting underway to talk about fundraising. The conversation went something like this:
“Have you spoken to [Big Trial Firm]?” I asked the candidate. His response: “Nah.”
“Have you spoken to [Teachers Union Head]?” I asked. His response: “Nah”
“Have you spoken to [Super Connected Federal Lobbyist]?” I asked. His response: “No. He doesn’t like me. He ain’t gonna help us.”
You get the picture. It was an ignominious start to what was ultimately a successful campaign, but it was also one of the first times I thought about what I’ve termed in this article pre-campaign positioning.
I realize it’s hard for some cynical political observers to believe, but not every politician, or prospective officeholder, is a Machiavellian conspirer who has been plotting ascension to the U.S. Senate since being elected class president in grade school. As a matter of business, it’s usually just the opposite—someone gets an inkling they can do a job and then decides to put their name on the ballot.
So what’s next? The first thing we do is evaluate the race—the partisan voting index (PVI) of the district and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the incumbent and challenger. This is all done with an eye toward what Sun Tzu terms “the greatest victory,” that which requires no actual battle. If you could spend $25,000 to save $500,000 wouldn’t you do it?
In today’s campaign environment—where social media is critical and reporters and bloggers cover all matter of political machinations—it’s easier than ever to make it appear as though there’s a groundswell of support for your candidate. But Washington only cares about two numbers: polling and cash on hand.
In 2009, I was approached by a popular local businessman about the possibility of launching a campaign to unseat a seven-term incumbent in a primary. The prospective candidate had previously served in the state House of Representatives, and we had an inkling the incumbent might retire if he had to face a grueling slog in a primary. Republican pollsters Whit Ayres, Jon McHenry and Dan Judy ran a poll to see what we were up against. I’ll never forget the reaction when we got the numbers back.
Whit Ayres called me to ask whether or not I was certain I had gotten a good pull on the data we sent. I told him I was sure and that I had all the faith in the world in the guy who pulled it. Whit was flabbergasted. “I’ve never seen a non-incumbent for a local office with better numbers than these,” he told me.
Our guy had 90 percent name ID, an approval number in the mid-80s, and virtually no negatives. He was also over 50 percent support against an incumbent with the same type of numbers. Needless to say we got that to the press, potential donors, and some people close to the incumbent as quickly as possible.
Once we applied the pressure, the incumbent announced he was dropping out the next week. One of the biggest takeaways for me was that we had used a reputable polling firm, one that wasn’t going to cook numbers or release anything it wouldn’t stand behind. It cost us a good chunk of change, but it saved us even more.
Recently, I was approached by a county commissioner who wanted to run for a local state House seat against an incumbent legislator. This legislator had backed out of a race before when faced with a strong challenge. With redistricting, the county commission district encompassed two-thirds of the state House seat, and our man was known to be responsive to constituents.
We fired up our machine, but this time we decided to approach some powerful interests in the area who we heard didn’t like our opponent. Sure enough, they were happy to put their names on a host committee list for a fundraiser that soon grew to over 50 people.
We simultaneously had a poll conducted, which showed that not only was our man popular, but the incumbent was underwater with those who knew him best: He had a 12.8 percent approval rating in his home boxes. I told our client, “If my numbers were that bad in my own backyard, I believe I would move.”
We leaked the numbers to friendly media sources, lobbyists, and the state house majority leadership. This not only got the word out that the incumbent was in trouble, but it also cut off most his money, because no one wanted to give big to someone who looked like a certain loser. The following week, our opponent dropped out.
This won’t work every time, but the basic principles of this method are sound whether your opponent hangs it up or not, because people understand those two numbers and they take note.
David Mowery is the founder and president of Mowery Consulting Group, LLC.