How to beat the incumbent when yours is the minority party.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hi. Next Contestant has been paying a lot of attention to two Congressional races in Maryland. One is for the U.S. Senate, between incumbent Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican challenger Dan Bongino. The other is for the House, between Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger, the incumbent Congressman from the Second Congressional District, and his Republican challenger State Senator Nancy Jacobs. Maryland is a state where registered Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts 2:1, more than 2.6:1 in the Second Congressional District. It’s a state where the people tend to vote their party affiliation.

The question is, what can the challenger say to undecided voters and those whose commitment to the incumbent is soft to convince them to vote against re-election. Notice the way I put that. You’re not asking voters to vote for you, but against the incumbent. Why? Because it’s the easier, more effective argument to make. Given a choice between arguing that you, who are not in office and have minority party support, are better than the incumbent, versus arguing that the incumbent’s performance while in office doesn’t warrant re-election, the latter approach is inherently more compelling. The first approach, which is positive, says, “The incumbent may be okay, maybe even good at what he or she does, but I’m better.” Really? How do you prove that? The alternative, negative approach, says and then confirms with hard data, “The incumbent has done nothing or, what he has done, he’s done poorly, and needs to be fired for that reason.”

Think of the distinction as if you were a Board of Directors considering re-signing the incumbent CEO whose contract is expiring. You don’t even have a replacement CEO in mind. Certainly, there are many qualified people out there, but why bother even looking for one? You’re not, going to bother that is. Re-signing the current CEO, re-electing the incumbent as it were, is the easy, default vote. If, on the other hand, the company is not better off today than when the current CEO was hired, or if the CEO’s performance has not lived up to the reasonable expectations of the Board, well then, he’s out. That’s the decision the Directors (the electorate) makes, even before asking themselves who else they would hire (elect) to replace him. That’s the decision point the minority party challenger needs to address. The challenger needs, first, to convince voters that the incumbent needs to be replaced. Only then does it make sense to argue that he or she is an acceptable, superior replacement.

The challenger can spend all his/her time motivating his base, but there aren’t enough Republicans out there to win, even if they all voted. Talking to friendly voters may make you feel good, but does it change the outcome? They’re not the ones you need to convince.

Okay, so you’re the challenger and you’re going after the undecided and soft incumbent supporters with a professional, reasoned, honest negative campaign as part of your overall strategy. Ask yourself, “Why not re-elect the incumbent?” I believe that it is in the answering of this question that the challenger’s campaign succeeds or fails to catch fire.

Unfortunately for the challenger, the usual answer is to argue that the incumbent’s voting history supports this or that specific bill or point of view. He supports this, instead of that. He voted to increase the deficit, for example, when the challenger would have opposed it. What’s wrong with this approach? The simple answer is that it’s partisan. More likely than not, the incumbent voted his party’s line. Criticizing his voting record only draws attention to the distinction between your parties, pandering to your supporters while potentially offending the majority party’s undecided and soft-committed voters. The majority voters like the incumbent and generally support his party’s points of view. That’s why they voted for him in the first place.

I recommend an alternative negative campaign that ignores all specific legislative issues, except those where there is widespread, cross-party agreement that the incumbent was obviously and egregiously wrong, in favor of making a simple, but no less profound business argument. That argument would be based on the following “charges” you levy against the incumbent:

1. Lack of meaningful focus.

More likely than not, the incumbent has failed, in any meaningful way, to contribute to the resolution of the critical economic, fiscal and social (healthcare, education, etc.) problems we’re facing. To play on the old adage that is no less valid today: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re [insert incumbent’s name].”

If you’re wondering about my emphasis upon an incumbent Congressman’s failure to work on national economic and other issues, keep in mind how closely tied his Congressional District is to the state and national economy. Doing favors here and there in your District to make voters think you’re their buddy doesn’t cut it anymore. All politics doesn’t have to be local. Congressional District voters are unemployed, under-employed and own or work for small and larger businesses that are struggling. And they have education and healthcare issues that cannot be resolved like potholes and speed bumps. These are serious issues that are national in scope. Nice guy or not, the incumbent – and the longer he’s been in office, the more this is true – is likely a holdover from a time that’s no longer relevant, and that’s something the voters need to hear, again and again.

2. Lack of productivity.

He’s introduced and co-sponsored virtually no legislation that has become law, no legislation that has had or would have had significant impact on his District, state or our country. Whatever he does all day in Washington, however well meaning his efforts, it’s been a huge was of time and money.

3. The inequity of access.

Like so many incumbents, the sitting Senator and Congressman have raised campaign capital from special interests who, without question, expect and receive access to them that ordinary voters, with their equally special and no less important interests, cannot afford.

4. Lack of return on the people’s investment.

Make the election an impassioned business decision. Nothing personal. The incumbent is a good man, reasonably bright, even hard working, but unfortunately and unacceptably unproductive. It’s just business. He’s just not up to the job. We’ve paid the Senator and the Congressman $174,000 per year, plus benefits, well more than most of their constituents will ever make. For what? What has been the return on that investment? What has the incumbent done for his money? What, actually, specifically, has he done for the people of his state and his Congressional District?

These four arguments, properly, passionately and repeatedly made, are a-partisan and will enable the challenger to appeal to reasonable voters affiliated with the majority party, and those are the voters the challengers need to win.

-Next Contestant

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