Learning campaign lessons from failed political hopefuls

Candidate Confessional talks to the best teachers: Those who lost miserably.

If you haven’t heard of Candidate Confessional, you need to. Where else do you get to hear household name politicians share the deep and dirty secrets of their losing campaigns? The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis interview former candidates about the highs and lows of their losing campaigns, from unsuccessful Arizona Senate candidate Richard Carmona to failed presidential candidates Howard Dean and Michelle Bachman — and a whole lot more in between. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll scratch your head. As someone with potential future electoral ambitions, it’s always struck me that you can learn more from losing than you can winning, and so I took my opportunity to delve into the candidates’ accounts of their many and varying mistakes.

By far my biggest takeaway is that WOW, campaigns are a hell of a lot of work for the candidate. I mean, I’ve worked in politics for a few years now, I have a rough idea — but I was not expecting the level of intensity they consistently recount. Failed Republican Presidential nominee Michele Bachmann reveals the demands of working a campaign as a candidate. She describes being interviewed four times by 11 in the morning, while the interviewer quips that he, like me, is lucky to have gotten out of bed by then. Eating is the lowest priority. She explains how each of the activities she did — interviews, fundraisers, speeches — would all be made substantially worse with food in her mouth. As a result, she had to eat the occasional pittance in the minuscule downtime between events; usually in the car. Howard Dean describes a similar experience, saying the majority of what he ate during his presidential campaign was mixed nuts on his campaign jet. I’d say I’m generally a pretty skinny guy, so this series has really made me want to gain weight to shore up some reserves if I ever want to run for office.

A common theme in each of the candidates’ accounts is how much they were misrepresented in the media. Bachmann’s account of her Newsweek cover photo is a great example of this. According to her, the photographer brought her in and they took a number of good shots, and then right as they were finishing asked her for what he called a “test shot,”.

He had her stand awkwardly behind an odd background, saying it was a just protocol for his editor. They ended up going with the “test shot” as a cover photo, probably because its absurdity would sell more copies. I know Newsweek ain’t no Economist, but that seems a little rough to me. Dean’s account of his infamous “scream” echoes these sentiments. When he did the yell, none of the reporters in the room thought anything of it, but because the room was mic’d up poorly, Dean came across a lot louder than he actually sounded. So the television editors who were just watching the coverage made it into a story. As someone who might run for office one day, this doesn’t do much for the warm and fuzzy feelings I have about the media. I think the key to successfully navigating the media as a candidate is understanding which publications will likely support you. Despite not being a communist, I’m liberal enough to say that I doubt the Seeing Red AZ blog will ever support any of my candidacies.

From a political strategy perspective, I’d say the biggest thing each candidate talks about is that establishing a broad base of support is key to winning statewide and national elections. Dean’s base was voters who identified with him as the “insurgent” candidate. You could say he was 2004’s Bernie Sanders, but as Dean says: “Insurgent candidates don’t win Presidential elections.” In order to get elected, Dean knew, he needed to make the turn from an insurgent candidate to an establishment candidate. Voters have to see you as presidential. In unsuccessful Senate candidate Richard Carmona’s case, he realized that to win Arizona he needed to win the rural areas and not just metro Phoenix and Tucson. To do that, he embarked on a speaking tour to veterans’ organizations in rural areas across the state; as a result, he surprised everyone and won Pinal County. I thought this tactic was really smart, but I question the reproducibility of it for someone outside of his background. Speaking as a veteran and a doctor, he was able to instantly appeal to other veterans upset about their benefits or the quality of the medical care they were receiving. A city politician, out of touch with the struggles rural Arizonans face, would likely face significantly more skepticism.

Listening to a candidate talk about all the hard work they put in to ultimately gain nothing gets a little depressing. That’s why one of my favorite parts of Candidate Confessional is the heartwarming stories told in the interviews. Dean tells a story about how one day a 13-year-old kid from Alaska shows up at the headquarters. He had asked his parents to let him work on the Dean campaign for Christmas, and today he’s serving in the Alaska legislature. Anthony Weiner laments his failure to become mayor of New York, but is happy that he’s able to spend time being a father to his two boys; something that would be much harder if he was mayor. Even a losing campaign can make a positive impact in people’s lives, and, in the end, that’s why we’re all doing it, right?

Unfortunately, Candidate Confessional has gone on hiatus for the summer, but I have it on good authority that they’ll return sometime soon. Now’s a great time to catch up if this sounds like a series you’d be interested in. Catch up with the episodes you missed here, and shoot me some criticism(positive only) here.

This week’s podcast review was written by Javelina’s Andrew Pulcipher.

Coming up next week — a look at the post-presidential debate podcast analysis. Don’t miss it!

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