Even though memories of the joyous 2013 baseball season burn bright, the truly fanatic baseball fans among us have already started think about the next season – the offseason – and all the excitement that it brings. The offseason officially opens with a variety of awards, continues with blockbuster trades and ends only when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training (that’s February 15 for those of us contemplating a trip to Jet Blue Park). Returning players will take the next few months to spend time with their family and recharge while minor league players and hopefuls will spend the offseason honing their skills and getting in shape for their shot at the big leagues. For political types the offseason is similar as elected officials contemplate whether to run again and candidates scurry to pull their campaigns together while getting duck boatloads of unwanted advice from people they don’t know. Today I thought I’d get the political offseason off to a roaring start by throwing out some tips for 2014 candidates.
As an announced candidate, now is a good time for your campaign to fall apart. If a campaign is going to have a crisis, have it now since election day is a year away, people have short memories and no one is paying attention. If you’ve got some dirty laundry to air or are expecting the departure of a disgruntled staffer, this is the time to “put out your garbage.” Voters are focused on the holidays and no one cares if your campaign has hit the skids. For what it’s worth, the window on free campaign calamities closes just about the same time the last Christmas tree (or Holiday tree if you’re at the Chafees) gets picked up off the curb.
Having said that, know that certain missteps will haunt you. Rhode Island’s political reporters are a small group and for as competitive as they are, they are also friends – with each other. An early blunder with that core group will stay with you. Right now Clay Pell is making the rounds with labor and party groups and blowing off the media calls. If – or more likely – when he decides to run, he’s notched up the scrutiny he’ll get by not answering their questions. He’s also making folks suspect that he doesn’t know enough about Rhode Island to serve as governor. The whispering is fierce: he probably can’t tell the difference between John from Alperts and the Cardi brothers. Or even worse - he probably doesn’t even know where all the Almacs used to be.
If you’re running against an incumbent, you have twice as much work to do since you need to give people a compelling reason to vote for you and against the other person. It’s political Stockholm Syndrome – voters are loyal to incumbents – even if they don’t agree on most issues. Fear of the unknown prevents voters from making the leap and supporting someone new. Of course, some incumbents deserve to be re-elected, but many skate by without being challenged or facing only token opposition. If you’re going to run, don’t just be a placeholder, make a case for why you’ll be better for your opponent and show why they deserved to be replaced. Contested races don’t have to be negative, but they need to be comparative and if you don’t delineate why you would be better than the person holding the office, your chances of winning are negligible. Go big or go home.
And just as a coach might say to a slumping batter or the pitcher with an ERA higher than his age, I’ll add my last piece of advice: “Don’t listen to ‘em.” That’s right – you’ve got to run your own race and try and block out the constant stream of unsolicited input about everything from the insiders you “have” to recruit to the color of your yard signs. Every time you hear a “you oughta” you should nod politely and ask for a campaign contribution. The people who want you to win will keep talking and write a check and those just interested in dispensing their wisest thoughts will zip their lips and leave you alone. Either way, you’ll be in good shape for the 2014 political season and you’ll know who’s truly on your team and who just wants a picture with the trophy.