In today’s political environment, attacks have become the hallmark of campaigning. From one perspective, it’s an unfortunate thing, because voters often can’t see through the finger-pointing and mud-slinging to get a good read on the issues that actually matter. From another perspective, voting is so often based on emotion, and there’s no more powerful way to invoke emotion than raising questions and concerns about your opponent.
Attack ads are nothing new. Politicians have been using them in their campaigns for a long time. One of the most well-known (or, infamous, as the case may be) is soon-to-be President Lyndon Johnson’s ad against challenger Barry Goldwater in 1964, when America – politicians included – was just learning how powerful the medium of television could be:
But you have nothing to hide, right?
Famous last words. No, there’s always something. And if there’s nothing immediately scathing to say about you, you’re certain to be associated with someone who can make you look bad in the eyes of voters. Whether that’s a business liaison or the top national political candidate who’s out of favor (and happens to be of the same party as you), linking you to them can often bring the results your opponent is looking for.
So, it’s coming. Just get ready for it. The question is how? You’ve put yourself out there as a candidate with your heart in the right place, and with the best of intentions to be a diligent public servant, and someone wants to slap you for it????
Yes, they do.
Don’t be naive… Political races aren’t just about a seat on the local council. They are contests where the victor and her backers wield political influence, jobs, fundraising opportunities, campaign volunteers and pathways to higher office. Those things may not be #1 on your priority list, but they’re #1 on someone’s. Someone who wants them enough to block your chance of getting them.
This part of campaigning is so commonplace that The Campaign Coach has quite a bit of experience in leading candidates through the dark times. But we don’t wait until the last week before Election Day to deal with it. We start early. Here’s how:
For many candidates we deal with, who are generally good people, they’ve never had to deal with anything like an attack ad in their lives. Bad Yelp reviews for your business, maybe. Perhaps an ex-BF or GF spreading rumors around high school after the break-up. Or, you added a comment on a story on your hometown paper’s web site with an unpopular opinion and people railed on you for it.
There’s really no way to prepare for what you’ll feel having someone tell thousands of your neighbors what a wretched, awful person you are. It sucks. I’ve gotten many phone calls from candidates the afternoon that people started letting them know that a hit piece landed in their mailbox. It’s not comfortable, and you immediately get angry and start to plan your counterattack. That subsides, though, as the logical part of you starts to assess whether or not your opponent’s uppercut will actually impact your campaign.
Will it hurt you? That depends.
But we’ll get to that in a bit.
The first thing we want to deal with is your emotional reaction, and hopefully you’ve started preparing for the hit long before it happens. Understanding that the attack is coming is the first step. You can’t avoid it, so it’s important not to dwell on it. It’s part of campaigning, so you have to roll with the punches. And believe me – if and when you win, there’s only a bigger target on you, so you might as well get used to it. As with anyone who puts themselves “out there” for people to react to, there’s definitely a “suck it up” responsibility here.
Now… Your loved ones? That’s a different story. As the candidate, it’s important that you have them equally as prepared, because it’s going to sting them. Your spouse, who loves and supports you; your kids who deal with their own social issues as they interact in the community; your parents, who don’t know why you’re running for council instead of President because you can do no wrong. As earnestly as you’d discuss your fire evacuation plan for your household, it’s wise to discuss your preparation for the hit piece, as well. Playing as though you have nothing to lose is never a smart approach.
Note that I put your emotional preparation first. In many ways, from a personal perspective, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, more than it matters that one is coming. I will tell you that political consultants are ready with the attack piece the second they sign onto a campaign. I will admit that in the last campaign I worked on, I designed a pretty lethal negative piece* on our candidate’s opponent that was to be kept “in the hopper.” We ended up winning without using it, but we had it ready if we needed it.
* Note: The opponent had made a bad decision in the campaign, and the piece was designed to exploit it; we never condone personal attacks – though we’ve had plenty come our candidates’ ways – we do like to highlight bad decision-making.
So, what are they going to attack you on?
Determining that is half the battle, because you can not only prepare for the aftermath, but you can potentially even set the record straight ahead of time. Not that you want to steer your campaign according to your opponent’s messaging, but often the one issue you can identify is one that can be diffused pretty easily.
If you have something glaring, such as you didn’t pay a tax bill or your rental tenants have lodged complaints in the past, it’s pretty easy to know where the attack is coming from, and how to deal with it. If you’re pretty clean (which many first-time candidates are), you need to keep an ear to the ground throughout your campaign. If you do, you will pick up where the conversation is heading.
The good thing that happens sometimes is that you’re completely prepared for a hit to happen, and you feel like you have a good understanding of what it’s going to look like, and then it’s a dud. The thing is, in local elections, there isn’t a lot of money flying around – and often not a lot of expertise. Which means that if your opponent is going to hit you, she’s only really going to have one shot at it.
Just like you get ideas in your head every day about how to propel your candidacy through the roof, so does your opponent. I’ve had candidates waiting for the Big One, only to have their opponents attack them for something as weak as taking a contribution from the wrong company (which, incidentally, I’ve seen tried a bunch of times, never with any real impact).
There’s an ’80s video game called “Punch Out,” where you went through a series of boxing matches against increasingly difficult opponents. The entire key to the game was waiting for the opponent’s big punch and then dodging it. If you could time your evasion for the right moment with each boxer, you would win the game. Do your research, and be ready for the attack.
So, what do you do when the hit happens?
Well, your first instinct, especially if there’s misinformation or spin in the attack (which there generally is), is to try to tell the world that it’s not true. You want to go on facebook – far and away the best outlet for emotional reactions, of course – and post that your opponent is a liar and a cheat, and shouldn’t be trusted.
Don’t do that.
The first thing to do is to evaluate the issue that’s been brought to the voters by your opponent. It may sting. It may get a rise out of you. But is it something that will resonate with voters?
For a precursory glance, put yourself in the voters’ shoes. Does what your opponent is saying about you shed light on your inability to serve your community in the office you’re running for? Does it promote any of the following?
- You can’t be trusted financially
- You can’t be trusted ethically
- You can’t be trusted to represent the interests of (all) taxpayers
Many times, the attacks don’t get to these core issues of running for office. They come out of left field, and are so far over the heads of voters that they’re basically a waste of your opponents’ time and money. In local campaigns, they’re often done so close to Election Day that they hardly matter. In bigger municipalities, where there’s more money to draw out a message over time, it’s a different story, but the idea for you is the same: get past the emotion, and try to evaluate logically the impact that you think the message will have.
That’s not to say that there aren’t effective issues and messaging out there – even some that can come at the last minute. Years ago, I worked on a campaign where a Democrat had turned Republican and ended up having to run a Primary against a lifelong Republican, who made that loyalty a central part of the campaign. Two days before the election, they sent a piece with a big picture of our candidate posing with Hillary Clinton. Brilliant. We tanked in the final days and lost the Primary (though we ended up winning the general election two months later on minor party lines, which we can do in New York).
So, once you’ve identified how the attack is coming, and whether it will resonate with voters, you can begin mitigation, if you believe it will.
Whatever it is, you want to have an answer and a solution.
Did you know that [CANDIDATE’S] restaurant’s property taxes were six months delinquent in 2016?
Answer: Our restaurant was flooded in early 2016, and cashflow suffered while we waited for insurance money to come in; we filed for a legal extension
Solution: The taxes have been paid, and the restaurant’s tax payments have been up-to-date since
Now, when I say have an answer and a solution – you still need a way to get that message out. The key is creating sound talking points that can be used in any conversation in which the topic comes up. This can happen before the attack comes, or after. Door-to-door, public forums, social media interactions (replying to public or private comments) and media interviews, if asked.
What likely won’t happen is the ability to respond in a public way. You don’t want to use precious campaign resources to justify your opponent’s hit, and rarely will the media pick up a response, unless they’re covering your opponent’s attack (which is also rare – usually it’s because it’s outlandish and the media is pushing back on them), in which case you’ve then been given a great forum to say what you want. But have your talking points ready for whatever use you can find for them.
The last thing I want you to remember is this:
Your campaign is not a one-sided contest. Your opponent is playing by the same rules that you are, which means she’s fair game, and wondering what you’re possibly going to say about her, as well. For incumbent opponents, then, yes, they’ve been attacked before, but they also have a body of work to use for fodder.
The attack is coming. It’s a part of politics. It may be strong, and it may be weak. Be ready for it emotionally, mentally and strategically, and your campaign will be stronger for it.
Just as I’ve helped many other candidates get through attacks, I can help you. Our programs are designed to take you all the way from your decision to run through Election Day and beyond. To find out how, start by downloading my free e-book, “How to Avoid the 7 Biggest Mistakes That Can Keep You From Getting Funded, Getting Votes, and Getting Elected!”