We cover a number of basic campaign commandments in ‘So You Want to Win a Local Election?’ not the least of which are:
1. Don’t let your opponent define you, and
2. Don’t give voters a reason to dismiss you outright
The best example of our first postulate is the 20170 Illinois gubernatorial race featuring Republican State Senator Bill Brady against the incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn. Brady and his team disastrously decided all they had to do to win was to repeat the phrase “I’m not the other guy” in its various iterations.
But when you allow that kind of campaign vacuum to form, it gives your opponent the perfect opportunity to fill it. And when the Quinn team released those “Who is Bill Brady?” commercials, they effectively painted the Republican as far too conservative for Illinois women.
The end result? In a race that Brady thought he couldn’t lose, Quinn prevailed by a mere 32,000 votes out of the 3.5 million ballots cast.
As to our second postulate, a 2015 Geneva, Illinois aldermanic race saw two eminently reasonable and hardworking candidates vie for the open Fourth Ward seat. That kind of level political playing field should’ve given the female candidate a leg up, but she made a massive mistake.
Her motto, “Sustainable, responsible city government” wasn’t bad on paper, but to those fine, conservative, Republican, Caucasian Geneva voters, the word “sustainable” wreaked of an impending liberal apocalypse.
That slip was all the voters needed to dismiss our intrepid candidate who wound up with just 31 percent of the vote. And that’s about as bad as it gets.
You see, the average American voter – the equivalent of an off-meds ADHD sixth-grader coming off a three-day sugar and video gaming binge – doesn’t want to be bothered with the facts. So, if you provide them with an easy way reject your candidacy outright, that’s exactly what they’ll do!
There’s a reason smart politicians speak in campaign platitudes – they work.
In both cases, our errant candidates consciously chose the strategies that doomed them. But there are ways of violating our two commandments that most electoral hopefuls would never consciously consider, and the 2019 Geneva, Illinois, School Board race provides us with a perfect example.
You see, my hometown just endured the kind of divisive teachers’ strike that pitted a very vocal pro-union minority against the 80 percent of the community that’s tired of perpetual property tax hikes. The rhetoric got so nasty that the union slated a group of teacher friendly candidates to finally teach those scurrilous sitting board members a lesson.
For those contenders to have any shot in the heavily Republican Geneva Township, they needed to keep their union affiliation on the down low. We won’t get into all the Illinois campaign finance machinations that allow for that kind of thing, but it’s not a terribly difficult thing to pull off.
But our overly passionate slate blew it right out of the gate!
Like most Rust Belt states, Illinois requires candidates to secure a specific number of voter signatures before their name goes on the ballot. And to a savvy political operative, those names can be the equivalent of political DNA.
Furthermore, nominating petitions are public record such that most county clerks post the signature sheets online. So, you can peruse that paperwork from the comfort of your PJs and it took a scant five minutes to determine exactly who the four pro-union candidates were.
Why was it so easy to ascertain their affiliation? Because almost every one of their signatures came from district teachers.
That simple discovery allowed me to paint them as a pro-tax slate before they had the opportunity to define themselves. I’m sure they’ll make some attempt try to reframe their message, but if there’s a term that’s even more devastating than “sustainable” in Geneva, it’s “pro-tax.”
So, as long as the three fiscally conservative candidates drive that message home, the voters won’t consider their union-backed counterparts and no amount of counter-messaging will change that.
What those candidates should’ve done is acquired walk lists from the county clerk and canvassed a precinct to get those 100 signatures. That effort does two things. First, it keeps the opposition in the dark. A signature sheet that lines up by voter address provides virtually no clues. And second, the process of procuring signatures from folks you don’t know is a perfect campaign introduction.
Those happy-to-sign teachers were going to vote for the pro-union candidates anyway, so why not use the nominating petition process as an opportunity to meet new voters and generate new support? Instead, they shot themselves in both feet before the campaign even started.
I understand nobody likes knocking on strange doors in that capricious November Midwest weather, but taking the easy way out has pretty much cost our pro-union candidates the election. Not only was I able to define them before they defined themselves, but that definition provided the voters with the perfect reason to dismiss them outright.
Now, it’s simply a matter of repeating that message until election day April 2nd.
As I frequently like to say in ‘So You Want to Win a Local Election?, no grand gesture will win an election, but one really bad move will most certainly lose it. And this is all the proof you need!