My favorite campaign commandment in the soon-to-be-released ‘So You Want to Win a Local Election?’ is …drumroll please… pick a race you can win! I may love idealists and their boundless energy, but we campaign managers have another name for those overly optimistic folks – “losers!”
And I mean that in the electoral sense only.
Because for every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Dave Brat (he beat Eric Kantor), there are 100 candidates you’ve never heard of and never will. And the truth is, Brat didn’t win, Kantor lost that Congressional race out of an absurd abundance of arrogance and Ocasio-Cortez is one of those rare “movement candidates” you see just once or twice in a lifetime.
The late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, for example.
There are many varieties of unwinnable elections, but we’ll cover the two major candidate pitfalls:
- Running against an unbeatable candidate – typically the incumbent
- Jumping into a crowd of contenders, which is particularly fatal to first-time candidates
The quintessential example of the unbeatable candidate was the late Naperville, Illinois, Mayor George Pradel.
From 1995 to 2011, any Napervillian who harbored mayoral aspirations was SOL (bleep out of luck). No amount of money, no amount of name recognition, no amount of negative campaigning, no amount of positive campaigning, no amount of time, and no amount of door-knocking mattered.
Had Jesus Himself returned to run, He could not have beaten George Pradel.
George was beyond amicable, he knew how to connect with voters, he avoided the typical political pitfalls and, most importantly, he was Naperville’s Officer Friendly for years. And all those former school children had very fond memories of George’s visits.
Unlike most candidates, he loved campaigning and it showed.
George never let a handshaking opportunity go by. I’ll never forget the time he showed at a 5K to pass out the awards which he took right out of the race organizer’s hands. He’d wave at people from his car. He’d stop and talk to voters in the grocery store, and he’d work a restaurant as if his life depended on it!
Many worthwhile candidates challenged George over those two long decades, but he dispatched every one of them without even breaking a sweat.
Put more simply, George understood the value of “impressions” long before those Internet marketing mavens figured it out, and that made him unbeatable. How can a novice candidate possibly catch up with the number of impressions a savvy incumbent makes?
So, considering the time, effort and money required, it always saddens me to see good candidates tilt their lance at an election they can’t possibly win. And in this 24/7 news cycle, if you lose two straight elections, you’ll be labeled as an also-ran making it virtually impossible to win that third one.
The second unwinnable election scenario is one with an overabundance of candidates. This is especially true for first-timers because a crowded field favors those who have some sort of name recognition and those who sit well out on the partisan bell curve.
Had the 2016 GOP presidential gaggle been a little more manageable, Donald Trump wouldn’t have had a prayer.
The current Chicago mayoral race is a perfect example of the crowded field conundrum with a bit of the unbeatable candidate circumstance thrown in for good measure.Let’s start with the challengers who can win:
Toni Preckwinkle – 19 years as a Chicago alderman and 8 as Cook County Board President put her right at the top of the list.
Bill Daley – The name “Daley” is synonymous with being Mayor of Chicagah.
Susana Mendoza – An Illinois Comptroller who’s proven she can win at the statewide level has a real shot. She’s also the most charismatic of the bunch by far.
Garry McCarthy – A well-regarded and press savvy former Chicago Police Superintendent who promises to focus on crime should not be underestimated.
Paul Valas – The former CPS CEO and reform candidate sits in a distant fifth place, but if the other major contenders split the vote, he could slide in.
And the longshots are:
Gary Chico – Sorry Gary! You’ve lost too many elections to win this one. Ed Burke’s radioactive endorsement won’t help you one bit, either.
Amara Enyia – Who?
La Shawn Ford – A Madigan State Rep with minimal name recognition? Not this round!
Neal Sales-Griffin – Who?
Jerry Joyce – Who?
John Kozlar – He’s already lost two aldermanic races and he thinks he’s gonna be mayor? It doesn’t work that way.
Lori Lightfoot – Who?
Willie Wilson – Who squared!
Considering the amount of resources and effort it takes to mount a major metropolitan mayoral campaign, you really have to wonder who’s advising those folks.
“But Jeff! Chicago and Naperville are two of Illinois’ largest cities, wouldn’t I stand a better chance in a smaller venue like Batavia, for example?”
No, you would not! And Batavia is a perfect example because Mayor Jeff Schielke is currently enjoying his tenth term. I helped a candidate run against him for future name recognition purposes, but we had no illusions of winning that one.
Occasionally, a three-term smaller city incumbent mayor/alderman will lose, but it’s typical borne of a wilting campaign ethic, not the result of anything the challenger did. If, like George Pradel, an incumbent is willing to work, they will be difficult to beat in the smallest village.
While this is somewhat of an oversimplification, in the process of writing the book, I asked around 30 local elected for their thoughts on a novice’s chances. Here’s what they said:
- 5 percent against an undamaged incumbent
- 25 percent against a candidate who’s won at least one contested election
- 33 percent against a candidate who’s campaigned before
- 50 percent against another inexperienced first-time candidate
And those odds get much worse if your opponent has a reasonable campaign manager and you don’t.
“So, Jeff! What should all of those Pradel challengers have done?”
Not run! Political timing is everything! They should’ve waited until George stepped down or run for a city council seat they could win. There’s nothing wrong with building name recognition and gaining campaign experience before you go for the bigger prize. In fact, it’s smart strategy.
Pick a race you can win! It’s the most important political decision you’ll ever make.