Nearly all candidates have said or done something stupid that could derail their political campaign for office. How to handle dirt in your past, and stop a problem before it becomes a problem.
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This is not a post about embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore, but I shall use his situation to offer some counsel to candidates who have dirty laundry in their past.
This is a fundamental truth about humans. Everybody who has ever been born has said or done something stupid. And this is a fundamental truth about a political campaign. If there is dirt in your past that is findable, somebody on your opponent’s team will find it.
In this day and age, the dumbest thing a candidate can do is hope their past won’t surface. It will. Especially if it involves sex, money, bankruptcies, drunk driving, stupid tweets, dumb Facebook posts, a messy divorce, or insensitive comments about people of a certain race, religion or ethnic group.
Does that mean you should not run? No. It means that if you have dirty laundry in your past, you need to air it out on your terms. If you don’t your opponent will air it on their terms, and they won’t be near as charitable about your past as you are.
Furthermore, your opponent will expose your stinky stuff at the worst possible time. Usually in the last month of a political campaign, throwing you completely off message at a time when voters are paying a lot of attention. Think Roy Moore.
In my 40 years of working with political candidates, I’ve helped a lot of candidates overcome past mistakes. I’ll share some lessons I’ve learned:
Rule 1. Air that Dirty Laundry early in the campaign. That gives voters and the media a chance to digest it, come to terms with it and avoids having it become new news during the last month. You can do it in a lengthy interview with a print reporter, or in a television interview, in a well covered speech, in a press conference, a mail piece, or a television or video ad. Bill Clinton started his 1982 Gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas with a television ad that addressed mistakes he had made in his past. Voters forgave, he won and the rest is history.
Rule 2. Be absolutely sincere, candid and completely truthful about the mistake. Voters will forgive a candidate who is. They too are human, and they too have therefore done dumb things. I once had a client who’d gone though a very messy divorce. And the material in the divorce decree was an incriminating mess. I had him meet with an influential reporter before he announced his candidacy. He gave the reporter a copy of his divorce decree, freely admitted that he’d cheated on his spouse, admitted that the whole sordid affair was entirely his fault, and as a result of learning from the mistake, he had a successful second marriage and raised three children. What would have been a serious problem never became an issue in the campaign.
Rule 3. Emphasize the good that came from your mistake. A client of mine who was a contractor had once declared bankruptcy. The circumstances were this. He was building an expensive home. The owner fell behind on the payments. Rather than layoff his workers and walk away from a job half done, he continued doing the work until the house was in a weather ready condition. He was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy until his successful lawsuit against the owner wound its way through the court system. Rather than hope his opponent would not talk about it, he brought it out early in the campaign on his terms. And instead of the issue becoming a problem, voters concluded he was a man of character.
A final word about this. In the coming days we’ll see more stories about horny men who put their hands in places they did not belong. What was tolerated 20 or 30 years ago is now completely unacceptable. In fact, by today’s standards, icons of our past would have been driven off the public stage, including some men named Kennedy and Clinton.
Candidates who have that kind of dirty laundry in their past had best be giving thought on how they handle it. Before their accusers step forward.
Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.
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