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Some ways to winning an election when you’re in a hard spot, and what to do if the situation is hopeless.

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There are occasions in almost any competitive election when you’ll feel like your back is against the wall. Nothing going right. Strategy not working. On the defensive, taking flak from your opponent or a nasty pack of reporters. Or maybe your party is out of favor and the political environment offers nothing but a cold north wind. You are not without options. There are some ways to winning an election when you’re in a hard spot, and here’s what to do if the situation is hopeless.

Option number 1 is to change the subject. Some call it changing the agenda. Or playing offense. Turn the campaign into a referendum on something that helps you win.

A simple example. I once lived in a community where there was a hotly contested race for a seat on the school board. One candidate talked about his plan to dramatically reduce property taxes, and his message resonated because homeowners were angry about their property tax bills. He capitalized on the anger and a month before the election most thought he’d win.

His opponent launched a counter offensive by talking about the impact the tax cuts would have on the quality of education. How it would force the district to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and eliminate popular athletic programs.

By changing the subject from a referendum on tax cuts to preserving the quality of public schools, he turned the tables, winning an election and defeated the candidate who’d made tax cuts his cause célèbre.

It is a time-honored tactic that you are now seeing in the campaign between President Trump and Joe Biden. Biden wants to make it a referendum on the President’s response to Covid 19, his character and the economy. President Trump wants to change the subject to urban unrest, cutting crime, supporting police, and keeping taxes down. Whoever wins the tug of war over the campaign agenda will win the election.

A second option embattled candidates have is what is called ‘winning it ugly.’ You most often see it when a candidate with high negatives decides the only way to win is to drive the negatives of their opponent higher than their own.

At one point in the 1988 Presidential campaign, George Bush 41 trailed Governor Mike Dukakis by 17 points. The Bush campaign launched a blistering assault on Dukakis’s record as Governor, his positions on crime, opposition to the death penalty, and his vow to cut defense spending. The assault decimated Dukakis. Bush won the election by 7 points and carried 40 states.

In 2012, President Obama found himself the underdog in the race against Mitt Romney. He launched a prolonged assault on Romney’s business record, his off-shore bank accounts, and the cut-throat way Romney made his fortune using leveraged buyouts to force companies into bankruptcy. The attack drove Romney’s negatives above 50%. He never recovered.

Winning an election campaign this way is ugly. And there is nothing redeeming or uplifting about it. Usually it is the option employed when the price of losing is a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history.

There is one other option I’ll mention for candidates who face impossible odds in a political campaign. It’s called living to fight another day. It is for those who want to give life to a cause, and use the campaign to ignite a movement they believe will grow and become a force for good.

In the rural part of Indiana where I was raised, lived a college professor who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in 1972. His name was Phil Sharp.

For a variety of reasons, it was a very bad year for Democrats in Indiana, and everybody knew he had no chance of winning an election that year. Unapologetic in his convictions, he declined to launch a negative assault, and instead used the campaign to promote his cause and ideas.

Two years later, when the political winds were more favorable, he again challenged the incumbent and won in a landslide. He served 20 years in Congress and saw most of his ideas become law. His is but one example of how a candidate endured defeat with dignity, and in so doing lived to fight another day.

Those who have studied the careers of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are familiar with their example as well. Of two men devoted to the timeless truth of an ideal, willing to sail against the tide, endure defeat in service to their crusade, who in so doing gave life to a cause that forever changed the course of history.

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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.

How to win an election:

Running for office and knowing how to win an election is a challenge, especially for first time political candidates just learning how to run for office. Discerning the fine points of how to campaign, raise political contributions, and execute a political campaign strategy often requires the help of someone who has served as a political strategist or who has experience as a political consultant.

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