Five (more) Fix immutable rules of politics

August 26, 2013

The Fix is a lover of rules. (Don't act surprised.) In politics, sports and everything else, rules help us define the, well, rules of the road. So, once we started thinking about the immutable rules of politics -- those things that are true no matter whether you are running to be one of 400 members of the New Hampshire state House or the president of the United States -- we couldn't really stop thinking about it.


Ask Howard Dean how that Al Gore endorsement worked out for him.

And so, we are adding five more rules to our original list of five. And, yes, we are going to build all of these into a stand-alone post with all of the Fix Rules in the very near future. Stay tuned. (Also, recommended reading on this topic: Reid Wilson's 5 rules and Nathan Gonzales' 6 things losing candidates say + four more.)

1. Endorsements (almost) never matter. Remember when Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign was going to be the last piece of the former Vermont governor's winning puzzle? More like nail in the political coffin. Endorsements from other politicians, newspapers and the like are, almost always, incredibly overrated. Yes, there are races where an endorsement does matter (The Post endorsing Creigh Deeds mattered in the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial Democratic primary), but they are the exception not the rule. Need more on endorsements? Check out the Fix Endorsement Hierarchy.

2. Negative ads work.  Everyone agrees that negative ads are a terrible thing, a blight on the body politic. And voters will tell you that they are not swayed by these terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ads. Except that they are. People say they don't like negative ads but, in campaign after campaign, it's been proven that the bits of information contained in said negative ads infiltrate the consciousness and influence how people vote. Not running negative ads in a campaign is a recipe for disaster with three notable exceptions: 1. An outside group handles the negative stuff while the candidate ads stay positive; 2. You are ahead by so much that you don't even need to worry about your opponent (John Hickenlooper's ads in 2010 are a good example of that phenomenon); 3. You actually want to lose.

3. All (successful) candidates use polling. There's no more overused candidate trope than "I don't need polling to tell me what I think." (Newt Gingrich, we are talking about you.)  The truth? ALL -- and we went all caps on purpose there -- candidates use polling to help guide them to victory. The misconception about candidate polling is that it's primarily conducted to see what the horse race looks like. Wrong. Most internal polling is done to test a variety of messages -- both positive and negative -- that can be employed during a campaign. Remember that winning campaigns tend to settle on a single message and stick to it -- like, for example, "Hope and change." That repetition is not by accident. It is poll tested like crazy.

4. Running for random down-ballot office ≠ running for major statewide office. In 2004, state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) was running for the open Senate seat of retiring South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings (D). She came to meet with Roll Call (Fix's employer at the time) and political handicapper Stu Rothenberg. When asked about the challenges of winning a Senate seat in a state that tilted toward Republicans, Tenenbaum cited the fact that she had been the biggest vote getter of any statewide elected official when she ran for reelection to her post in 2002 as evidence that she was the sort of person who could win crossover Republicans. Except that running for state superintendent of education isn't anywhere close to the same thing as running for a U.S. Senate seat -- in terms of money, partisanship or the issue matrix. Tenenbaum lost by 10 points to Sen. Jim DeMint (R).

5. Geography matters. A lot. If you had to choose between being a tremendously dynamic candidate running in a state that tilts away from your party or a just-okay candidate running in a state that favors your side, you should take the latter option absolutely every single time. In 2008, Jeff Merkley, a solid but not stellar candidate, upended Sen. Gordon Smith (R), a genuinely talented politician with a demonstrable record of bipartisan successes. President Obama won Oregon by almost 16 points, and Merkley eked out a 3-point win. Ditto John Boozman's crushing defeat of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in 2012. Or Harold Ford's loss in Tennessee in 2006.  The ground on which you are fighting matters. Hugely.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | August 26, 2013