Debra Medina was charging hard in the Texas governor’s race, closing in on three-term U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson in a three-way contest. A second-place finish would have put Medina in a run-off against incumbent Governor Rick Perry for the Republican nomination for the governorship of the second largest state in the country.
Then she went on Glenn Beck’s radio show. When asked whether the federal government had a role in 9/11, she responded, “I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard. There are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there, so I have not taken a position on that.”
Glenn Beck summed up the aftermath of the interview when he said Medina was heading back to single digits. Medina finished a distant third in the Texas gubenatorial primary with 19% of the vote, well behind the top two contenders. Medina is not the only one. Many well-intentioned newcomers are in danger of politically spazzing themselves to death.
Americans are tired of politicians’ smooth answers, refusal to follow principles, and slick campaign talk. However, some campaigns are doomed to defeat because they’re making basic errors.
As a former candidate, I made a couple big mistakes that I wish someone would have told me to avoid.
If people want to make a difference, they should avoid giving their money and energy to campaigns that have doomed themselves to political oblivion. Here are the warning signs.
1. Going off-message
Medina’s truther answer is a prime example. After the interview, Medina pleaded that questions about 9/11 have nothing to do with the issues facing the state of Texas. Exactly. That’s why she never should have said there have been “very good questions” raised about whether the government was behind 9/11 .
Good candidates run for office for a reason, but there are constant distractions. Candidates should avoid opining on issues that are irrelevant to winning the election.
For example, while there’s merit in returning to the original Constitution and ending the direct election of senators, it’s never going to happen. Candidates who raise the issue are doing their political chances harm because it distracts from the message they want to communicate.
Entertaining conspiracy notions — whether it be from the 9/11 truthers, birthers, or from people who believe aliens landed at Roswell — also distracts from the campaign’s message and ultimately sabotages the campaign.
A campaign should not be a stream of consciousness expressing whatever random thoughts and fancies come into the candidate’s head. The candidate is asking people to spend their time and money to dedicate themselves to a cause. It’s not unreasonable to expect that candidates will dodge attempts to distract with fringe “issues.”
A gaffe like Medina’s raises another question. When people elect a political leader, particularly an executive, they’re looking for a decision-maker. They’re not electing an ideological set of positions. When a disaster hits, people expect the governor to make the right call. They want their governor to have the discretion not to embarrass the state.
Texas voters wanted to know whether Medina would make good decisions if elected and if she could be trusted to be the face of Texas. Lincoln said it best when he declared, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
2. Failing to develop policies
Even worse than going off-message is not having a message in the first place.
At one meeting I’ll never forget, candidates for county commissioner were appearing to speak to a Republican group. One gentleman got up, and his presentation for why we should nominate him for local office involved messing around with his personal digital assistant to find his favorite Ronald Reagan quotes.
He didn’t get nominated. Some folks run with vague platforms that have nothing to do with the office sought. For example, in Montana, I ran for Lincoln County treasurer at the age of eighteen, and my big applause line was that I thought Bill Clinton should resign. Of course, this was a poor platform for local office, and I got shellacked at the polls.
I ran for the office because I felt we needed to elect people who wouldn’t misuse their power. In retrospect, I should have channeled my concern for the lack of good public servants into examining how the county treasurer’s office could better serve the public.
The same principle applies to other offices. It’s not enough to run around and say “I want to bring back the principles of Ronald Reagan” or “I’m going to restore the Constitution.” That doesn’t give people a governing vision that springs from those principles.
For example, one could begin the process of restoring the Constitution by focusing on eliminating specified unconstitutional practices or programs. Or we could honor the vision of Ronald Reagan by inserting market principles into a failing government.
People want campaigns to actually relate to the problems that are being faced in a given district. They don’t only want to hear about general principles that don’t easily apply.
3. Failing to plan
Poor planning is a campaign killer. There are many questions in a campaign: How will you raise the funds? Who will be your campaign workers? How will you get your message out to voters? How will new media be leveraged to help you succeed?
No candidate has all the right answers to these questions, but they need to understand that in order to win the issues have to be addressed. Those campaigns that aren’t well0planned can go wrong in a number of ways. The cheapskate campaign hands out dull-looking literature and has a website that looks like an artifact of the GeoCities era. On the flip side, there are campaigns that move with frantic energy like a four-year-old on a sugar high, but have no strategy other than looking like a campaign.
In other campaigns, someone has won the Republican nomination only to become more scarce than Sasquatch after the nominating process is over. Sometimes the candidate fails to realize the time commitment required. The big tragedy of this is many people will be dissuaded from running in a race where another Republican has announced.
4. Not knowing their district
I must confess to this mistake also. When I ran for the state legislature in 2004 in the Republican primary, I decided on a noble strategy. I would campaign in every precinct in the district equally. I would reach out to Democrats, Republicans, and independents in my open primary state in a district that swung Democratic.
I knocked on 2,200 doors. I got swamped in a primary where only 1,100 people voted. Why? I wasted time on campaigning and passing out literature at apartment buildings and mobile home parks where few people voted and even fewer would mark a Republican primary ballot. Instead, I should have found out where likely Republican primary voters lived and focused on them.
5. Not being honest about themselves
Any time a conservative has a personal failing, whether it happened today or twenty years ago, its front-page news. Candidates owe it to themselves, to their families, and to their volunteers and campaign donors to fully examine themselves.
They should identify what could bring pain into their lives or the lives of their family if it came out. They should identify what professional or personal enemies they have that may come forward to sabotage a campaign.
Personal failings do not mean you shouldn’t run for office. If that was the case, only sociopaths who didn’t care who they hurt would file. Rather, such failings should be taken into consideration, and people should be fully prepared for any skeletons they have in their closets to become a matter of public record. They should plan for what will happen when the information is disclosed.
The good news is the American people are more forgiving than we imagine. Senator Scott Brown’s (R-Ma.) youthful nude photo shoot didn’t stop him from being elected. Evangelicals didn’t drive Sarah Palin out of the Republican Convention and put a scarlet “A” on Bristol Palin’s chest when it came out that Bristol was pregnant out of wedlock.
The one thing voters can’t endure is hypocrisy. Bill Clinton has had numerous affairs and continues to come back, but John Edwards is politically dead and will not be resuscitated. Edwards’ affair was not only a betrayal of his cancer-stricken wife, but an attempt to deceive the American people, who believed Edwards was lovingly standing by his wife as she fought for her life.
People should avoid hypocrisy and shun its appearance. Even if you’re a model wife and mother now, if you cheated on your husband ten years ago, don’t make being “mother of the year” a centerpiece of the campaign.
6. Failing to learn from mistakes
Some candidates show great potential as eloquent speakers or as people with great personal biographies, yet they can never make it in politics. This is because they fail to learn from their mistakes or they give up on the process.
The biggest telltale sign of a political loser is that he’s running the same losing campaign for the third time. Perennial candidates simply can’t be bothered with figuring out how to make politics work, but feel compelled to keep filing anyway.
For candidates disgusted with the political process after a defeat, the temptation to never run for anything again is high. However, one loss need not be “the end” of their efforts; rather, it can be a beginning. Like a football player watching videotapes of their games, candidates should think through their campaign and figure out how to improve.
America needs principled conservative leaders. For those leaders to get elected, they need to be wise, humble, and thoughtful as they seek the public trust.