Interpreting campaignese: A consultant talks to a candidate

Posted on 02. Nov, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Politics

As a student and practitioner of American politics, I’m fascinated at how many candidates have mastered the art of dodging tough questions . Equally intriguing is how they’ve shaped our language and combined it with sophisticated body moves into a well-choreographed rebuttal to just about anything thrown their way. This is no doubt the result of extensive focus groups, voter surveys, media testing and the advice of ‘branding’ experts (the new gurus of the political consulting world).

The whole thing can be pretty confusing, so let’s first look at ten rules for candidates that provide some context for their campaignese.  Caution: This is a full-spin zone, and truthfulness is not a requirement to enter or participate.

Ten Rules for Candidates

1.   Always assume that journalists are out to get you, so remember how you got out of that uncomfortable situation a few years back and be prepared to use the same technique(s) again.

2.  Always assume that photographers will try to snap you in the most unflattering poses (yawning, rolling your eyes, wearing stupid hats, etc.) so don’t give them the opportunity. Resist putting on the Indian headdress or the bicycle helmet (remember Michael Dukakis in the tank?).

3.  Always assume that the local person introducing you on stage wants something from you. Always ‘man hug’ him and enthusiastically thank him and the organization he represents even if you aren’t a member or would ever dream of becoming one.

4.  Always walk a fine line between being too folksy and too serious. Remember you are not a stand-up comedian, although telling a good joke (nothing too controversial and certainly nothing ethnic, gender-based, religious or racy) may get you an invitation to the Letterman or Leno shows.

5.  Always have a ‘sound-bite’ or two ready for use, especially if you’re trailing in the polls.

6.  Always be ready to invoke, ‘America is the greatest country on Earth’ and ‘Our best days are still ahead of us’ – just not in the same sentence (unless of course the crowd is right of center).

7.  Always remember to get the amendments straight. The right to keep and bear arms is not the First Amendment no matter what your audience thinks. It’s still number two, right after number one (freedom of speech, religion, etc.).

8.  Always point to something/somebody in the audience as you take the stage, and smile as if their presence there is a pleasant surprise to you. (If you need a positive mental image to  focus on, think about the first speeding ticket you talked your way out of).

9.  Always make believe that you didn’t hear an awkward or potentially embarrassing question (by putting your hand behind your ear and feigning interest).

10.  Always answer a question by segueing to the point you want to make by saying, “You know, that’s a very good question and…”

Getting elected isn’t easy, whether it’s a state or federal office, but getting elected President is a bridge too far for all but the truly committed, and it should be. I can’t conceive of anything worse than a huge gaggle of candidates, all using the Ten Rules, campaigning all over the country. It would be like watching an endless rerun of the “I Love Lucy at the Candy Factory” episode or hearing the theme song from the Andy Griffith Show on a continuous loop for days on end. There would be no potential voters left because we’d have all gone nuts and committed ourselves to the booby hatch.

This year, we have about ten candidates for the ‘Big Job,’ and I have been studying them as if they were behind glass in my old childhood ant farm. Here are some of my general observations.

The candidates all started out playing nice, using the golden rule…until the pundits and bloggers wanted more contact. Then, a few ventured onto the ‘criticize the position’ battlefield, taking pot shots at the front-runners. (We’re speaking mostly about the Republicans here, because nobody on the Democrat side has come forward to challenge the President.)

Situation: Candidate ‘A’ criticizes Candidate ‘B’ on his position for being for government healthcare before he was against government healthcare before he was against his position of being against government healthcare.”

Mistake: People don’t like to be confused with the facts when they’re expecting to see blood.

Remedy: Just give them the blood. Ask him, instead, why he pulled the plug on his grandmother’s respirator.

Situation: You’ve just been accused of unfairly profiting from a road contract when you were Governor. The charge was leveled at you coming out of church on Sunday with your family by your side. Your answer is: “You’ll just have to talk with my staff on Monday.”

Mistake: The journalist has chosen the wrong venue and time. Make him pay for it.

Remedy: Your answer is, “I thought we were all supposed to keep holy on the Lord’s day!” An alternative answer would be, “I thought the press respected the first amendment!”

Situation: Hecklers are giving you a bad time. You’ve done everything you can to shut them up. Now you’re angry but you don’t want to show it, so you let your handlers give the hecklers the bum’s rush out of the room.

Mistake: Not good because the crowd sees you have hired thugs (bodyguards) and is starting to feel sympathy for the hecklers.

Remedy: Pull out your own pistol from your shoulder holster (if you’re speaking to an NRA audience) and say, “That’s alright, fellas. You can put him down and bring him back now. Thank heavens I have a concealed carry permit.”  An alternative would be to get the audience laughing by assaulting him with fourth grade epithets like, “Did your mother ever have any children that lived?” Or better yet ask him how tall he is and then say, “Gee, I didn’t realize they could pile manure that high.”

There are many more situations that require candidates to think on their feet, and they usually come during pre-primary debates. Getting eight or nine giant egos on a stage requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work by staffers – people whose careers depend on making sure the podium doesn’t make their candidate look like Mickey Rooney at a stilt –walkers’ convention.

Debates are like the TV Dating Game where each candidate tries to woo you over to his/her side with a great looking outfit, a smart one-line comeback, a joke about the opposing party and a passionate pitch for no taxes, free government stuff and an ipod for every pocket (used to be chicken in every pot).

The candidates’ handlers are a bit like zoo keepers. They keep the beast (and his ego) fed, clean his cage and make sure that the public maintains an appropriate distance at all times. They make sure the press is held at bay (or lured onto the premises with the promise of an exclusive interview). They do advance work like running ahead to check the VFW Hall for any whoopie cushions the opposition might have sneaked onto the folding chairs. They test the food and give kitchens the dietary requirements of the candidate (this doesn’t work well at county fairs, all-night diners or corner hot dog stands).

Finally, they stay up nights planning for all eventualities, running through dozens of possible ‘what if’ scenarios that might befall the candidate AND they amass new phrases and words for the campaignspeak playbook, many of which will never ever be used.

A seasoned campaigner once told me, “If you think all this campaigning is political theater, try governing!” I guess that says it all.

- Editor


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