There is one constant in the human existence. Everybody who has ever been born has said or done something they’d like to forget. And there is something that is constant in political combat. Every stupid thing that a candidate has said or done somehow surfaces during a political campaign.
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Hoping that your past mistakes won’t surface is futile. And if you don’t put it out on your terms at the outset of a campaign it is often fatal. Why? Because if you don’t your opponent will. And your opponent won’t be near as charitable about the ugly in your past as you will. And if the ugly in your past is news to the press, your friends will be reading about your ugly in the newspaper.
Today, I’ll share with you some lessons and methods that have worked well for those who had to come clean about their past.
Rule 1. Do it early in the campaign. Either with a reporter, in a TV ad, or in a mail piece. In 1980, Bill Clinton was the youngest ex-Governor in the United States, having made some mistakes in his first term that proved fatal. He began his 1982 comeback bid with an ad that was an apology—we called it his mea culpa—in which he acknowledged that he had made errors in judgment during his first term—admitted that he had not listened well…and looking the camera in the eye…said he had learned his lesson would never again raise car tag fees. It worked. You know the rest of the story.
Rule 2. Be absolutely sincere, candid and truthful about the mistake. 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 had had a successful second marriage and raised three children. When his opponent later sent the divorce decree to the reporter and suggested he do a story, the reporter said he’d already seen it and regarded it as old news.
Rule 3. Emphasize the good that came of your misfortune. 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 as his successful lawsuit against the owner wound its way through the court system. The reporter wrote an article about it, and did such a good job putting our spin on the story that it never became an issue in the campaign.
These are just a few examples of how a candidate preempted bad stories about their mistakes and misfortune. Telling the press or the public about the stupid in your past does not guarantee a trouble free campaign. But is does improve your chances of having your side of the story in any article that is written, and if your strategy is well thought and well executed, it may not come up at all. I can also promise this—if you don’t explain up front something that could be fatal to your campaign, chances are it will be fatal.
Have something in your past that is holding you back from public service? Not sure how to handle it? I’ve helped dozens of candidates overcome past mistakes and go on to win elections, including one who overcame a fatal drunk driving accident and was elected a Judge.
I may also be able to help you. If you’d like to talk, call me at 845-458-1210. Or email me at [email protected]. It will not be a sales pitch—simply an opportunity for you to talk about your situation and a chance for me to share some ideas on what you can do.
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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