It is with a certain diffidence that I reveal the secrets of my colleagues in political commentatordom, but sometimes it's best to tell all. And all, in this case, is simply the following: Five simple rules will whisk you from analytical naivete to the summits of political wisdom. Take my advice and you'll be the shrewdest pundit in your carpool.
Rule 1: Ignore candidate endorsements.
Voters do. When was the last time you heard anyone explain a preference for president of the United States on the basis of an endorsement of the candidate by the county coroner? People -- voters -- do not work that way; they cannot be wrapped up in some tight little ethnic or religious package and deposited in any candidate's column.
A respected friend or civic-minded colleague is capable of influencing our vote on a contest where they obviously know more than we do about the candidates or the specific issues. This kind of delegated power usually is limited to elections for the library board or the flood control district -- maybe extended on occasion to state representative. But not for president. Who among us, in 1976, did not know that Gerald Ford had played college football and made his own English muffins? Probably only the same clod who did not know that Jimmy Carter had a brother named Billy.In a presidential campaign, we all are beneficiaries (or victims) of an information overload and the endorsement of any candidate by the local deputy sheriff counts for very little in our deliberations.
Like all good rules, this one has an exception. If the endorser is a spouse, sibling or parent of the endorsee's opponent, this deserves some consideration. For example, if Mrs. Lillian Carter were to endorse Jerry Brown tomorrow, that would merit a second look. An endorsement of John Connally by Eunice Kennedy Shiriver would be worth a paragraph in the paper and a pause for consideration. But the general rule still holds. iForget the candidate endorsements, because everyone else does -- except the candidate and the endorser.
Rule 2: Time is more important to any presidential candidate's success than money.
It is no accident that three of the principal Republican candidates -- Bush, Reagan, and Connally -- are all out of office and are full-time candidates. Howard Baker started to make up lost ground in the race only after he gave up his Senate leadership and became virtually a full-time candidate.
Traditionally, the two basic resources available to any candidate have been time and money. If you got into the race late, the way to make up for lost time was to spend money, generously and judiciously. The most recent example of the successful big-spender/late-starter is the present governor of Kentucky, John Y. Brown. Brown entered long after his opponents and just before the filing deadline. But he hired competent people to do those campaign jobs for which, if you have enough lead time, you can frequently recruit competent volunteers. Because time was too short to meet many Kentucky voters face-to-face, Brown visited almost hourly in Kentucky living rooms through the televised spots of Robert Squier and the strength of his own checkbook. He used money to compensate for time lost.
In 1980 presidential politics, the Brown approach is illegal. Federal law limits what anyone can give to any campaign (maximum of $1,000) and what any campaign can spend in any particular primary as well as in the entire campaign. This means a couple of things. If there is an approximate parity of money spent by a candidate and his opponents, then time becomes more important. Important in personal campaigning in the primary and caucus states and important in recruiting supporters and volunteers. It is undoubtedly no accident that the early surprise winners in both 1976 and 1980 -- Jimmy Carter and George Bush -- spent respectively, in the year preceding the election, 260 and 328 days on the road campaigning.
Rule 3: Everything in a campaign is a poll.
You do not have to wait for the published wisdom of Dr. Gallup or Mr. Harris to see who's ahead in any campaign. Everything that happens in a campaign is really a poll. How many volunteers is a candidate attracting and retaining? How many invitations to speak and appear before school, professional and party groups is a candidate receiving? How happy and enthusiastic is the candidate's campaign staff at any given time in the campaign? Are other politicians (all possessed of a special olfactory nerve) eager to show up with the candidate and share public platforms with him as well as pictures in the daily papers?
The money people are always a step ahead of Gallup with their checks. There is a definite connection between election returns and bank receipts. The Bush campaign which had budgeted to take in $590,000 during January had to adjust for contributions of more than $1 million after the Bush upset win in Iowa. Other adjustments were required by the Kennedy campaign: Payless paydays and Trailways instead of United Airlines followed close upon the numbers from Dubuque and Davenport.
Editors are also good people to watch in your own informal polling. Does a candidate have traveling with him television network crews and correspondents? Are the major papers and the news magazines reporting on him regularly, or, heaven forbid, have they taken their reporters off his press bus and put them instead on the press bus of the dark horse?
In short, everything in a campaign is a poll -- from changes in campaign personnel to the size of the crowd at the Nashua, N.H., Rotary Club luncheon. Chances are that Lou Harris will only confirm what you can observe. The candidate who dominates the dialogue almost always wins.
Rule 4: A candidate is not usually successful on election day if he spends most of his time before either talking about the other fellow's issues or answering the other fellow's charges.
Sen. Henry Jackson painfully learned this lesson in the 1972 Florida presidential primary. That year, the overriding issue in Florida was school busing, which was strongly opposed by three-fourths of Florida voters.
Jackson, who had sponsored every major civil rights bill in the senate, was himself opposed to school busing. He made his opposition known at every Florida campaign appearance and during every interview. But voters are funny people. They recognize the genuine article almost all the time. In Florida in 1972, the voters listened politely to Jackson, but the candidate they heard was the genuine article on school busing: Gov. George Wallace of Alabama beat Jackson by more than three to one.
If your favorite candidate is the original fiscal conservative with a long record of public criticism of the Soviets and the campaign debate becomes a question of how much we should enlarge federal payments to the elderly and the urgency of negotiating SALT III with the Russians, then you can probably shelve your plans for attending his inaugural ball next January.
If an incumbent can succeed (and it's every incumbent's dream) in making his opponent the campaign issue, then reelection is almost guaranteed.
If the national debate next fall centers on the cutting of the size and scope of federal government and evils of inflation, then the challenger (the Republican) will have an advantage. If, instead, the central question becomes who can best provide continuity and stability in these troubled times, then the incumbent (if in fact he's on the ballot) will enjoy an edge.
The rule to follow is: If you're running against Sen. Bill Proxmire, you'll be better off running on something other than your commitment to exposing government waste.
Rule 5: Be kind to politicians. It will make the year easier.
Politicians are very likable people. There is something really courageous about running for president when you know that everyone you were ever in a carpool with, went to the prom with or lived next door to will know whether you humiliate yourself or get elected.
That's not the way it is with most of us. If we don't receive a promotion, who actually knows about it other than a handful of family and colleagues? When the hometown paper announces that Johnny Geesil is the new regional manager of American Coathanger of Orlando, they usually do not add that you and I were the other finalists and were passed over.
If you think about it, it really is unfair to hold politicians to a more demanding standard of altruism and nobility than we hold ourselves. For example, ambition, a very desirable characteristic in a brother-in-law, is somehow evidence of a terminal character defect in any holder of public office. A patrolman who works for and seeks a promotion is the object of admiration. The politician who does the same thing is both "self-serving" and an "opportunist." p
If you bear this last rule in mind, then the whole year that begins in New Hampshire may not be any less confusing but it will not be nearly as dyspeptic.