Lessons From Recent Elections

by Kenneth J. Drum

A past issue of this newsletter dealt with how to handle a negative attack by an opponent. Some political observers have characterized recent elections as the most negative in history. Negative attacks against a political opponent have become a trend in elections for principally one reason--it works! It will work until political consultants develop tactics that will counteract any advantage the attacker enjoys. One such response was recently written in Campaigns and Elections magazine by consultants Joe Slade White and Ben Nuckels. They are veterans of over 400 successful campaigns from the presidential level on down.

The article entitled "The Art of Rapid Response" put forth eight rules for responding to negative attacks. Here are the eight rules and some commentary on each.

Rule #1 Respond to the True Message of the Attack

Often there is a literal message of the attack and an underlying message. A response to only the literal message will only reinforce your opponent's attack while the real message will define your candidacy. We witnessed a lot of it in the 2012 election. For example, if someone is accused of not properly paying their taxes the underlying message is that the candidate is an elitist who plays by a different set of rules than you and I. Therefore they wouldn't care if they raised everyone else's taxes.

Rule #2 As in Judo, use the momentum of the attack itself to throw the opponent

Campaigns want to respond to every detail of an attack. Rather find the vulnerability of the attack and focus your response there. If you can catch the opponent in a lie the entire attack will collapse regardless of whether the rest of the attack is true or not.

Rule #3 Whenever possible make the message of the response about values that are personal and strike a chord with voters

Most voters are conscious of personal values. Family, patriotism, fairness to others, respect for the law, freedom to worship, opportunity to advance, etc. are examples of personal values that voters respect. A false attack on any of these widely accepted values will bring a backlash among voters.

Rule #4 Pivot quickly to a positive or a counter attack

A false attack can be used to reinforce a positive message of the campaign. A campaign can use the false attack as a way of getting their real message to voters without it seeming contrived. Since the false attack becomes a vehicle for delivering the positive campaign message the message is more powerful with voters.

Rule #5 A good response can actually make the opponents ads work for you

Once an opponent's attack has been discredited it is counter-productive for the opponent to keep using it. As often happens, they will continue to use it. When they do, most of their campaign rhetoric will be discounted. Their campaign literature will become less effective. Ronald Reagan's famous "There you go again" line took away a lot of his opponent's credibility.

Rule #6 When an opponent's attack contains something that isn't true, call it for what it is -- a lie.

In polling, focus groups, and dial tests, voters were much more willing to turn against an attack ad if one could show that it contained something that simply wasn't true--a lie. But it's important in a response to call it a lie in a calm, matter of fact tone and back it up with sources.

Rule #7 Respond quickly and decisively to an attack

Don't assume that if it isn't true it won't work. This is called the "Swift boat lesson" from the 2004 presidential campaign. Unanswered false charges tend to stick unless they are immediately refuted. A question can be asked, "Why is my opponent telling lies about me?". Answer: Because they are desperate and they know they have nothing positive to offer voters.

Rule #8 Use a response to redefine an opponent and their campaign

Response media should not only be looked at in terms of responding to attacks; it is also a tool for taking control of the dynamic of the campaign. When the time is right you can turn an opponent's strength into a weakness.

A final word from the authors

Today, as we face the new reality of the onslaught of negative ads sometimes by outside groups or by individuals, using response media effectively is more critical than ever to achieving victory.

Now anyone can run for office

The reason? Enhancements in campaign software are available to even low budget campaigns. There has been a lot of attention directed at the presidential election and the amazing amount of new campaign technology. Political consultants are falling over themselves to learn the latest technology developed by the Obama campaign. The Romney campaign had also created an untested model of GOTV software that was claimed to be second to none. Unfortunately for Romney, it failed on election day but will be brought back in some form for 2014.

Over the years the fundamentals of campaign management and field operations have undergone little change. You start by making a list of likely voters, communicate and try to persuade them, identify your supporters and turn them out on election day. What has changed is the technology that can organize the entire process. Large campaigns with lots of money were able to hire the talent to create ways of keeping track of field operations. However, field operations don't often have the impact on larger campaigns because you simply can't talk directly with enough voters. A good field operation can be a tremendous help to a large campaign for voter turnout. Not so much when attempting to persuade voters.

Smaller, down-ballot campaigns are the opposite. They respond well to face to face voter contact. Often voters have no idea who is running in those races. The problem has always been organizing the infrastructure of the smaller campaign. The technology was lacking. Not too long ago likely voter lists were kept on index cards or some other labor intensive method. Campaign contributors names were kept on a Rolodex. The only way someone could contribute money to a campaign was by writing a check and handing it or mailing it to a candidate. The internet has changed all of this.

Smaller campaigns can now act like the larger campaigns without the high cost of operation. Payments may be accepted online. An interactive website can be created at minimal cost. Lists of contributors, voter lists, GOTV plans can all be kept on an internet "cloud". Social media can be used by even the smallest campaigns.

What it all means is that anyone can run for office. By making the key to field organizing-direct voter contact-affordable and accessible to local campaigns, it is transforming who can run for office and who can get elected. A good political consultant with experience in local elections can bring all of this together to create a winning campaign.

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2014. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to: http://kendrum.com/

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