Do As I Say: A Political Advice Column by Jeff Smith

Do As I Say: A Political Advice Column by Jeff Smith

March 8, 2014

Q. I’m a small-business owner planning to run in a Democratic primary for state representative next cycle. I would love to get a head start on any possible opponents. Is there any reason not to formally kick off my campaign immediately after this year’s election? 

—Eager Beaver, Location undisclosed 

A. Yes, I think there is. Let me explain by painting two scenarios. 

In scenario No. 1, you are at a holiday party in your district in December 2014. You meet a gaggle of partygoers and you tell them that you have just announced your candidacy for the Legislature. They listen politely. You give them your new business card (“Candidate for State Representative”) and let them know you’ll be asking for their support. “When’s the race?” one asks. “The primary is September 2016,” you reply. He awkwardly says, “Okay, good luck.” You get his card, enter him in your database, and begin bombarding him with two years of campaign emails about your new endorsements and a recurring quarterly series of frenetic (“The critical second quarter deadline ends in less than 24 hours!”) fundraising emails. He reads the first missive, ignores the next few, then begins deleting them without opening them, since he certainly isn’t thinking about politics in 2015. By mid-2016, when he should be tuning in to the race, he’s unsubscribed from your list. 

In scenario #2, you are at the same party in December 2014. You meet a nice couple and tell them you’re a small-business owner focused on social enterprise, such as a new community farmers’ market, and you give them your business card (“Eager Beaver’s Fresh Foods”). You have a good conversation about the local start-up scene, get their cards, and enter them into your business database (and also into a separate database of people to contact once you formally announce your candidacy in early 2016). During 2015, you contact them with invitations to the grand opening of your farmers’ market, and a few months later, to help distribute excess fruit and vegetables to a local food pantry/homeless shelter. By 2016, when you formally announce your campaign (after having quietly begun raising money and seeking endorsements and elite support during the second half of 2015), the wife receives the emails and forwards it to her husband. “Remember the nice guy we met at a Christmas party we met a couple years ago? The farmers’ market guy? He’s running for office—let’s make sure we vote.” 

The point is that there are political junkies in the world, and then there is everyone else. A formal announcement two years out gets you almost nothing: at best, a press mention during a time when people are focused on the race that just happened, not the race two years away (presidential races excepted). Nearly everyone who doesn’t live and breathe politics would like you better if they got to know you as something other than a candidate (unless you are a used car salesman or telemarketer). Perpetual candidates are annoying, needy and often oily. 

Sure, there are advantages to announcing early. You might prevent opponents from getting in—or if not, you might be able to lock up elite endorsements or donors early. But often, you can accomplish these things without a formal campaign kickoff, especially if you’re running for lower-level office and the press isn’t covering you. In fact, meeting early with prospective donors, getting commitments, and staying in touch to seek their counsel before formally announcing is probably a more effective way to build long-term trust with donors than pressing for checks during the first quarter of a two-year cycle. So my advice would be for you to hold your formal announcement for as long as possible. Enjoy the benefits of normal citizenship—and the opportunities that come with being a contributing community member— before you are inevitably tarred with the “politician” label. 

Q. Honestly, how do you feel about the fact that your ex is dating Eliot Spitzer? Does it weird you out? 

—I.S., New York City 

A. Honestly, not at all. I couldn’t be happier for her, and for them. 

Q. I’m interested in running for state legislator, and recently reached out to the three-term incumbent to discuss my possible candidacy, but didn’t hear back. Originally I was planning to run in 2016 when the incumbent is termed out, but I’m hearing that he already has someone in mind to succeed him. So I’m thinking I may run against him in the primary this time. Here’s why: I might be able to beat him this time, but even if I don’t, I’ll get my name out for next time and get a leg up over the competition for next time. So the way I see it running this cycle is a win-win, right? 

—No identifying info, please 

A. Wrong. You are even more eager than Mr. Beaver (see the first question), which is no mean feat. To a political neophyte, your intuition is a logical one. But here’s why I think it’s off, one scenario at a time. 

You say that if you primary the incumbent, you might win. You know that incumbent legislators who seek renomination win over 95 percent of the time? So who’s in that select group that loses? Politicians who have been indicted. Politicians caught with their pants down. Politicians who have been redistricted into unfamiliar terrain. And occasionally politicians on the wrong side of a very inflammatory issue or set of issues. You don’t mention any reason the incumbent might be vulnerable, and your concern that he already has a chosen successor suggests that he has some measure of popularity to bequeath. Voters need a reason to fire incumbents, and unless they have a compelling one, they don’t do it. So though I’m not saying it’s impossible, a primary win this cycle sounds highly unlikely. 

Second, you say that running this time around could help you get a “leg up.” That does not apply here. You may be confusing this situation with a different type of scenario. Suppose you were a Democrat living in a swing district currently represented by a relatively popular three-term Republican incumbent in a state that limited incumbents to four terms. Running in 2014 is unlikely to result in victory, but it could endear you to party activists and give you the chance to court district politicos and donors. Assuming you lost, you might have the inside track the next cycle, or at the least the ability to stand out in a crowded primary field in an open seat race based on relationships developed during 2014. 

Unfortunately, primarying an incumbent has the opposite effect. It pisses off the incumbent and most party regulars, and puts you at a disadvantage relative to other prospective primary candidates in the next cycle when the seat will be open. Indeed, many retiring incumbents make an extra effort to mobilize their supporters against a candidate who has opposed them in a previous primary. The only mammals with longer memories than elephants are politicians.

 Jeff Smith (@JeffSmithMO on Twitter) is a former Missouri state senator who resigned from office after a felony conviction and served a year in federal prison. Now an assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School, Jeff recently co-authored The Recovering Politician’s Twelve-Step Program to Survive Crisis.

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