Reacting to Negative Campaigning: The “Stop, Drop & Roll” Approach

My candidate’s opponent just announced he’s dropping out of the primary race. He was caught in a couple lies and then claimed a conspiracy between my candidate and the Democrat incumbent. After going public with his conspiracy theory he decided he did not like the person he had become and dropped out of the race.
First, how do we unite the Party after such an event? Second, we still have a primary to win; both names will be on the ballot. How do we tactfully handle the issue of our opponent forfeiting the race?

This is a fantastic, specific example of a typical PR problem you may approach on the campaign trail.  Special thanks to the commenter who posted it so that I could share the answer with everyone.  In this situation, we’re dealing with what seems to be a flighty primary competitor now, and anticipating taking on an incumbent in the general.  So it’s a double whammy.

Let’s deal with this question one part at a time.  The first issue is that your primary opponent has sunk his own ship and is trying to do as much damage to your campaign while he tanks.  He’s thrown out some negative information in accusation.  How do you handle that?


First thing’s first.  If someone points to you and yells “LIAR! LIAR! PANTS ON FIRE!” Stop and look at your pants before you do anything else.

Did you in fact have any role in what happened to your primary opponent?  If not, relax.  Your opponent has already been established as a liar, and no one will be surprised if he’s lying about you, too.

When someone throws negative accusations at you, WAIT and see if the story “has legs.”  If you give a knee-jerk reaction and hurriedly put out a press release rebutting the accusation, you’ve just signalled the media that this story may be worth looking into.  Don’t shoot yourself in the foot!  If your opponent wants to throw out a couple of false accusations before his campaign breathes it’s last, let him.  Don’t assume anyone else will pick the story up until it actually happens.


What if you get a call from a journalist wanting your response to the accusations?

This is where we can learn a good lesson from Herman Cain’s PR faux pas.  Here’s my recommendation:  Tell the truth as fully as possible.  Always.

In Cain’s case, there was a grain of truth in the accusation leveled, and denying it completely or not addressing it with the full truth right away allowed the public’s imagination to go wild.  If you don’t fill in the blanks, the press or the public will do it for you.  I promise.

We’re going to assume that you had nothing to do with your opponent’s flop and aren’t involved in a conspiracy with the Democrat incumbent.  I would say the chances are FAR GREATER that no recurring stories will pop up and people will forget the accusations or brush them off as yet another lie completely, especially if it sounds concocted and fake to begin with, which it probably does.  The public will DROP the story, and you should too.

Should the press call you up, explain that you aren’t in contact at all with the Democrat incumbent and that you have no knowledge of the events your opponent’s accusations mention.  Just drop it.


Now, if you’re on the phone with a media person about the issue, you do have to ROLL with the punches.  This is actually an opportunity.  You must follow your ‘drop’ response up with the message you want the press to write about.

You could:

  1. Site the failures of your opponent and point out how you are different.
  2. Redirect the conversation completely.  Brush off the primary opponent as yesterday’s news, and outline your campaign message for the general against your Democrat opponent.  This is where you can start your effort to reunite the party.
Now let’s address the other parts of your question:  “How do we reunite the party?”
The party divides and reunites itself all the time.  And if you’re the only Republican candidate, they certainly aren’t going to work against you.  The most that they will do is just not help you much, which isn’t that big of a loss, because the ‘help’ the county/state parties usually give is rarely ever worth much.
You need to focus on voters.  And 95% of voters are completely unaware of what ‘the party’ thinks or does.  Don’t waste any money or time on ‘reuniting’ the party.  Just be sure at party fundraisers and events that you make your support for the party clear and openly express your desire to work together with them.  Talk the talk, ya know.
It really sucks that your primary opponent will still be on the ballot.  But since he’s no longer campaigning, you just need to make sure that you still do all the work you planned to do to get your name out there.  When voters go to the polls and see your signs everywhere and have heard your message through the GOTV effort you’ve already been working on, they are going to vote for you.
And the final part:  “How do we handle the issue of our opponent forfeiting the race?”
I’ve seen campaigns that have had to handle similar issues and usually when a campaign tries to explain the issue to voters, it just confuses them, and doesn’t really change the outcome.  I say deal with the issue as minimally as possible and shift your focus to being the Republican candidate and running against the democrat incumbent.  Go ahead and start your general campaign messaging now.  That way you’ll have a strong head start when the incumbent is only just starting his campaign.
Hope this helps – let us know how things shake out!



















Post to Twitter

How to Approach Negative Campaigning Without Being an A-Hole

Every once in a while I come across an incumbent candidate who is just a bad guy.  He doesn’t represent the district well, he takes advantage of his elected position and he no longer cares about the taxpayers.  Oftentimes this guy has committed offenses that should land him in jail.  He may even have a newspaper trail a mile long behind him of coverage of his heinous activities.

This is all great stuff for a challenger candidate.  And I would never suggest that you ‘pretend’ that your opponent has done no wrong and not acknowledge their faults when appropriate.  But using negative information to your advantage in a political campaign – negative campaigning – is a very dangerous game.  You’re already playing against someone that doesn’t play fair.  So before you venture down the low road, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pick your battles wisely.  Your opponent has cheated on his wife numerous times, owes thousands in back-taxes, and voted to legalize partial-birth abortion and let teens get abortions without parental consent.  What do you talk about?  Well the answer depends on you more than him, actually.  What is your platform about?  What issues are you running on?  If you live in a very conservative area and are running on a pro-life platform, it makes perfect sense for you to slam your opponent hard on life/choice issues.
  • Fight your battles with the correct weapon.  Let’s take the example above.  We have 3 very different, negative qualities that can be used against an incumbent opponent.
    The first one, cheating, is a very personal issue.  It’s a sucky thing to do, but really it’s none of your or anyone else’s business.  So I would never directly bring anything like that up in a political forum.  What I would do is take public opportunities to show off your own wife of 20+ years (whom you have never cheated on, I presume) and stress the importance of family values and the virtue of marriage and child-rearing to society.  You should also bear in mind that drudging up information like this hurts not only the candidate, but his wife and children as well, and obviously they wouldn’t need any more of that.
    In the second instance, unpaid taxes, well that’s hypocritical since his job consists primarily of responsibly handling the money that we law-abiding citizens do pay, but negative information like this is terribly difficult to pin down and prove, and making a muck of it will always degenerate into a he-said, she-said scenario that won’t do a challenger candidate any good, and is more likely to backfire if the public thinks that’s all you have to say about anything.  Therefore I would stick to the strategy of being overly open and honest about your own financial affairs, and not directly attacking your opponent on it.  If there’s an opportunity to crack a good joke at your opponent’s expense, however, I wouldn’t object to taking it.
    The third offense is an issue-related problem that can be backed up with information from your opponent’s public voting record.  The only time to directly attack an opponent is when you can site statistics or votes from credible sources.  It’s also important to allow the media to break negative information and then capitalize on it.  If you have to leak it to them, fine, but you breaking the news through your own campaign just makes it look dirty and concocted.
  • Fight for a good cause.  If your candidate’s whole strategy depends on smearing the opponent, run as fast as you can.  Any candidate for office should be able to stand on his own merits and be confident that he can win without the use of any negative campaigning whatsoever.  There is nothing more demoralizing than spending 6 months on a campaign trail talking about how awful, awful, awful your opponent is.  Choose to work for virtuous candidates that you can spend 6 months praising on the campaign trail.  Win or lose, you’ll be a lot better off for it.

Post to Twitter

How to Run for Congress – Sizing Up The Competition Part 1 – Incumbents

sizing up the opponent, how to run for congress

One of the most important factors to consider when pondering a run for Congress is your opponent.  Now there are typically only two scenarios that a first time candidate is facing here:

  1. You are a challenger candidate taking on an incumbent.
  2. The incumbent is retiring and you are the GOP candidate, facing an also new DEM candidate.
How you approach these two scenarios are quite different, so I’m going to address them separately, in most cases.  Today we’ll address challenging an incumbent.  We’ll pick up double-challengers tomorrow.  Or later today (we’ll see).

Running for Congress against an incumbent

This is like the ‘climbing Mt. Everest’ of politics, people.  When you say “hey, I think I’m gonna run against (insert 10 year+ incumbent here),” you’ll probably get a helluva lot more laughs than ‘atta boys.  But it’s not entirely impossible.  There are several reasons why some incumbents keep winning, but if the time and situation is just right, there are ways a challenger candidate can take on or take over even in a less than favorable district.  Below is a list of signs that your Congressman may be vulnerable to a strong challenge campaign.

  • Scandal!  Many incumbents can survive the occasional tax evasion or mistress mishap, but it definitely leaves a chink in their armor.
  • The Congressional district has changed.  Some incumbents start their careers in strong Democrat footholds that, over time through census district changes or simple attrition, evolve into more competitive areas.  Sometimes this effect is so gradual, it’s barely noticeable.  A thorough study of the past several years’ worth of voting data will give you more insight to your own district’s changing make up.
  • The mood of the district/country.  Like in 2006 when Americans were tired of ‘staying the course’ militarily and elected a slew of disastrous Democrats, the pendulum of the nation’s public mood is now making a swing in the opposite direction.  Now is your chance to hop on and swing your way to victory.  These massive overhauls generally only last a  couple of election cycles so 2012 may be the only time for a while you’ll have this opportunity.
  • The incumbent has changed.  The man who sits in office today is not the same man your district elected 10, 20 or 30 years ago.  He’s become more partisan and less participatory in local politics.  You can take advantage of this ‘distance’ from the district.
  • Times have changed.  Maybe the incumbent hasn’t changed much, but the district has.  Is there a new demographic flooding the area that changes the political landscape?  Are issues completely different than they were a million years ago when the incumbent was first elected?  Do research into archives of local newspapers around election times in the past to see if there are some changes you can latch onto as showing a ‘need for real change’ in the district.

So how do you approach a campaign against a long-entrenched incumbent?

  1.  Always respect the office and the incumbent’s years of service.  It’s a bitch job.
  2. Focus on the incumbent’s record and emphasize how different his positions are from the district’s concerns.
  3. Don’t bring up personal issues like tax evasion or scandals that are already known – it makes you sound whiny and insubstantial.  And the media will rehash that for you.
  4. Focus on compare/contrast language – this is the least offensive and most legitimate negative campaigning.
  5. Talk about yourself.  Beating the drum that the incumbent is no longer a viable choice doesn’t prove that you are.
  6. A clear, concise and resonant message is even more important when challenging an incumbent.
  7. Practice, practice, practice debating – incumbents have had years of experience not only on the campaign trail but in the everyday job of Congressman as well.
  8. Study, study, study your opponents’ record and everything significant that has happened since he took office.  I’m talking about every single vote.  You won’t be able to outshine the incumbent, but you can use what you know to keep up, and re-route him occasionally.
  9. Admit you don’t know everything.  Admit you don’t know much at all.  Then call your opponent a ‘Washington insider’ or ‘career politician.’
  10. Be younger.  Okay this is hard to fake, but a middle-aged candidate with a youngish family just looks more robust and capable than an old geezer whose kids have been grown for years.  In reality there’s no substance in this but it doesn’t matter because perception is reality.

Post to Twitter

How A Republican Takes a “Traditionally Democrat” Seat

Republican Bob Turner wins weiner district

Republican Bob Turner Wins Weiner District

Even if you don’t live in New York City, you probably heard all about former Congressman Weiner and his sext scandals, but you may not have heard that just yesterday in the special election to replace him Republican Bob Turner won the seat he vacated, a ‘traditionally democrat’ seat.

This was considered an ‘upset’ since the seat has been held by democrats for ages.  So how does a republican win a traditionally democrat seat?

  • Impeccable timing.  The first ingredient to flipping a seat is timing.  This district was hot with embarrassment, and that fueled voters not only to show up to a special election, but to be angry with the status quo that put them in the national spotlight to begin with.
  • A general ‘enough is enough’ attitude.  Voters all over the country are getting fed up with ‘politics as usual.’  The Tea Party is growing ever stronger and caused a movement that drastically changed the face of Congress in 2010 – and they continue to hold those candidates’ feet they helped elect to the fire when it’s decision time.  This special election was another clear message to those on the national scene, like President Obama, that they better hold onto their britches in 2012.
  • Incumbent complacency.  It happens all the time.  After 20 or so years of a particular seat always going to one party, the incumbent party – and office holder – tends to get complacent and stops putting in the effort to campaign, or to really represent his constituency.  They are like the hare taking a nap in the middle of the race, because they think there’s no way the other guy’s going to win.
  • Most importantly, a clear, strong, resonant message.  Turner approached this district, which is comprised of a heavily Jewish demographic, with a clear message, especially on the topic of strong support for Israel.  The message resonating with the voters and they came out to support him in turn.

Post to Twitter

Top 5 Reasons Why Some Incumbents Are Unbeatable

charlie rangel unbeatable incumbent

Charlie Rangel, Unbeatable Incumbent

Charlie Rangel hosts a “telephone town hall” on a pretty regular basis, allowing his constituents to voice their opinions and giving him an opportunity to sell his agenda to the voters.  You don’t have to sign up to be a part of it, you don’t have to be a supporter.  You just have to live in his district.  If you do, and you have a landline phone, don’t be surprised if you get a call telling you to stay on the line to be directly connected to the town hall.

This is just one example of the number one reason certain incumbents stay in office for a lifetime – access.  The voters have direct access to their Congressman!  It doesn’t matter that the questions are all screened or that Charlie tightly controls the topics for discussion.  A phone call is a very personal thing.  If the Congressman calls you – not a recording, and not a paid telemarketing guy – that leaves an impression!  Even if there are hundreds of other people on the line.  Don’t be the jack@$$ who promises to represent the voters in campaign season then never comes back to the district after Election day!

Another thing good ol’ Charlie does well – take care of the constituency.  It doesn’t matter what office you’re holding, if you’re an elected official, you can make things happen.  So do it.  A constituent complaining about getting evicted?  Set her up with a good place with low rent.  Someone upset because they got fired?  See if you can find them some employment.  If you can solve those kinds of problems, you can seriously change lives.  That’s a vote you know you can count on no matter what.

Reason number three: they never stop running.  Their campaign, that is.  It’s hard work to attend every pancake breakfast, chicken dinner, local union meeting, etc. while you’re in campaign mode – imagine doing it when you’ve actually got the job!  Regardless, it’s just another way incumbents must stay in touch with the voters.

Communication and messaging is central to any campaign.  Likewise, it’s vital after the election, too.  Luckily once you’re elected, you’ve got several communication channels already available at your fingertips, and it doesn’t cost anything!  Now obviously you can’t out & out campaign through an official newsletter or email, but you can continue to beat the same drum as on the campaign trail – remember the issues you ran on and keep sending the message to your voters.  There is no such thing as too much communication from your elected official.

Finally, let’s not forget the obvious – most of these incumbents live in very gerrymandered districts, with upwards of 70% of the voting population being solidly one party or the other.  Still, these guys are winning primary elections, or not getting challenged at all.  They are obviously doing something right.

Post to Twitter