A couple weeks ago, I attended a League of Women Voters candidate forum in Ripon, featuring candidates for mayor, Common Council and school board.
Two of the candidates seemed to have sufficiently impressive résumés and messages to get elected. Neither won last night. And I think it’s because of an affliction, if you want to overstate, common to some conservative candidates for office — their inability to appeal to voters. Or, put another way, it’s not always what you say; it’s how you say it.
I don’t know the split between extroverts and introverts in the public, and I suspect people are extroverts or introverts along a spectrum than merely “garrulous” or “painfully shy.” (For those who care, I’m a Myers–Briggs ESTJ, which is, somehow, a supervisory personality. My children will be really happy to hear that should they ever learn about Myers–Briggs.) Candidates who lost last night (who deserve credit for running, and who will find out that losing an election is not the worst thing that can happen to you, says the last place finisher in the 2003 Ripon Board of Education election) and who intend to run again might be well served to evaluate not just their message, but their message’s messenger.
Ronald Reagan is lionized among Republicans for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that he got elected president twice. He wasn’t perfect, but he was perhaps the ideal conservative spokesman of the day, irrespective of how he governed. He clearly loved his country, he spoke the conservative message (whether his own or a speechwriter’s, and the former more often than his detractors wanted to admit), and he was optimistic — he had faith that the U.S., the “shining city on a hill,” could solve any challenge if we put our minds to it.
Many of those qualities applied as well to Gov. Tommy Thompson. That is an amazing thing to say for those who knew him during his pre-governor days. I interviewed him once when he was Assembly minority leader — I was shocked that he answered his own telephone — and the interview went fine, but he didn’t strike me as a particularly great communicator compared with whoever I was talking to on the opposite side. Suffice to say the state’s political media was stunned when Thompson not only defeated the more media-friendly Jonathan Barry (or so we thought) in the GOP primary, and then beat Gov. Anthony Earl in the 1986 election.
And then Tommy Thompson, lawyer and minority-party state representative from western Wisconsin, known as “Dr. No” in Madison, became “Tommy!” I saw him speak a few times, and it was as if someone had flipped a switch to activate the state’s number one cheerleader and enthusiast. I once saw him during a state tourism conference in Appleton after getting out of his State Patrol car, seemingly fatigued from the two-hour trip, but once the TV lights came on, he practically burst from talking about how great it was to be from Wisconsin, and how things are getting done in Madison, and how the economy is really taking off, and once he was done he seemed like he had enough energy to run, not drive, back to Madison. It was a sight to behold.
Reagan and Thompson had in common enthusiasm that didn’t go over the top (although those who heard “stick it to Milwaukee” about the Miller Park tax might disagree), optimism, and the ability to relate to whoever they were talking to, to appear interested in what they had to say. Similar, though not exactly the same, qualities applied to Bill Clinton. I’ve never met Clinton, but I’ve heard and read enough about his personal magnetism to be able to understand how he could get elected president twice when he was interested much more in his own career than in his party, and his other, shall we say, character flaws.
In the cases of Reagan, Thompson and Clinton, their second-in-commands suffered in comparison. George H.W. Bush was a war hero and had an impressive enough résumé that if you were hiring a president, you’d pick him. He also benefited from running against someone with even less charisma than him. But that was in 1988; in 1992, despite a successful Operation Desert Storm, out went Bush.
Thompson was replaced briefly by Scott McCallum, who just couldn’t cut it as a candidate even when his own party was doing well. (Recall that before McCallum lost the 2002 gubernatorial race to James Doyle, he lost a U.S. Senate race to William Proxmire.) Al Gore should have been able to easily win the 2000 presidential election given how things were going in the country; the fact he didn’t demonstrates how poor a candidate he really was.
Thompson changed from Tommy Who? to Mr. Enthusiasm. Jimmy Carter went the opposite direction — the guy who seemed decent and smart in 1976 was embittered by 1980. Regardless of how the November elections turned out, there’s no question the 2008 Barack Obama of Hope and Change is not the 2012 Barack Obama.
One reason why Thompson is favored to win the Republican primary, depending on how new candidate Eric Hovde turns out, is because his opponent of highest name recognition, Mark Neumann, is an example of today’s headline. Neumann had better economic development ideas than his 2010 gubernatorial opponent, Scott Walker, but Walker came across better in public.
I heard a GOP campaign veteran say that Neumann’s problem is that he doesn’t like people. Neumann would probably deny that, but you have to at least act as if you have some degree of human warmth to present yourself the right way to those you want to vote for you. And attacks on your fellow party members don’t help either.
To say that Democrats care more about people than Republicans is a fraudulent statement. (If you really cared about working families, you wouldn’t put the state nearly $3 billion in the hole, since someone has to pay for that.) But that’s the stereotype that Republicans have to get over to succeed in elections. (At Monday’s Rick Santorum campaign appearance in Ripon, a misguided soul had a sign that said “Obama Cares!” I resisted the urge to go over to tell him that Obama cares, all right, about getting your vote and your money.)
One way to do that is to make your message an optimistic message. (Pessimists may be happier, to paraphrase George Will, because either they’re satisfied that their predictions of bad things were correct or they’re pleasantly surprised that Doomsday didn’t happen, but pessimists make poor candidates.) The grotesque federal budget deficit and debt is certainly threatening to topple the nation to turn our bad economy into a comparative Utopia. But unattached or persuadable voters don’t want to hear that fact put that way. They want a candidate to tell them how better things will be for ourselves and, more importantly for parents, our children if we get our fiscal house in order and the government stops siphoning so much money from our pockets. That’s how Reagan addressed federal finances, and he left office with a considerably smaller deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product than we have now.
So what does this mean for those running for city councils and school boards? First, regardless of whether or not you’re a people person, you have to get out and see your voters. Those things your parents nagged you about — stand up straight, look people in the eye, speak up, and shake hands firmly — all apply in public. You also have to listen to who you’re talking to, not merely race through your front-doorstep speech.
Beyond all the high school forensics, tips, you have to represent your positions in the right — that is, correct — way. If, for instance, you think spending needs to be cut, you present a picture of what people can do with more money in their pockets. And you don’t talk about budget cuts as much as running whatever municipality you’re running to represent more efficiently, to add value for the voter’s tax dollar. You don’t even talk about how your incumbent opponent is screwing things up; you talk about how things need to be done better and run better. Most voters don’t want change; they want improvement.
We can agree that presidential debates get far, far too much attention in the political media. Candidate forums at the local level, however, might be the only opportunity for people generally uninterested in politics between elections to see who you are and what you represent. Presenting yourself well in the media and the public isn’t complicated — for instance, going into a candidate forum knowing in advance points you want to be sure to get across — but it takes preparation and practice. Talking to yourself in a mirror or in the car on the way over will feel awkward, but it will make you feel better prepared.
Having better ideas than your opponent doesn’t help much if your opponent communicates his or her ideas better than you communicate your own ideas. It’s not just what you say, it is very much how you say it.