In 1984, Gillette launched new television advertisements for its Dry Idea antiperspirants, which featured celebrities talking about three things that should never be done in their tension-filled professions. The last one, as many will remember, was always “never let them see you sweat.” It was an instant advertising phenomenon.
While the slogan is appropriate for scores of high-pressure professions, nowhere is it perhaps more applicable than in political elections when one campaign is behind, reeling from internal pessimism, and much in need of convincing detractors that all is not lost.
Both of the current presidential campaigns have experienced this cultural infection to some extent.
For much of the summer and in the weeks following a lackluster convention, Mitt Romney—already the last choice for many among the conservative base—was fighting leaks from his staff, a daily onslaught of new polls showing him behind in swing states, and a political punditry that had practically declared the race over. Between an ill-fated overseas trip, a botched response to the attack on Americans in Libya, and the release of a video showing Romney saying 47 percent of voters were freeloaders, the leadership of the Romney campaign had to have been sweating bullets.
Meanwhile, in recent days, President Obama’s campaign has had its own brush with pessimism. The president’s lifeless first debate performance, in which he seemed tired, dispassionate and unwilling to rebut Romney’s claims, has resulted in a tightening of the polls just four weeks out from Election Day. While all-out panic may not be going on, the shift in momentum has to have the president’s campaign staff concerned.
As someone who’s worked on a number of close races with campaigns that were trailing in the polls—from Mark Warner’s 2001 Virginia gubernatorial race to Jim Webb’s 2006 Senate Democratic primary against Harris Miller—I know how critical it is to stem the bleeding before political perception becomes political reality. Once pessimism poisons a campaign’s organizational culture, it can be very hard to find the antidote that kills it off.
There is an old story of a panicked soldier on one of the landing craft at Normandy who, just before he was to jump into the water, grabbed his commanding officer and said, “Sir, I can’t swim!” To which the commanding officer calmly replied, “Son, you don’t have to know how to swim. You have to believe you know how to swim.”
That is also true for the brain trusts of both campaigns. Persuasion starts from the inside out.
Campaign leaders need to make sure their candidate believes there is a path to victory; without his or her confidence, no one else, either inside or outside the organization, will be moved. They must remind candidates that other presidential hopefuls have been in far worse positions and gone on to become president. Previously written-off candidates like Harry Truman and Bill Clinton most immediately come to mind, but there are plenty of others.
Next, campaign managers must refocus staff and supporters on why and how winning is feasible. First, and most important, they must constantly communicate. Campaign leaders must repeatedly share the path to victory with staff, supporters, donors and surrogates to get everybody on the same page. There can be no leaks and no naysayers. In meetings, they must give evidence of how they can win—often done with insider polling information—making sure to use the data to put the campaign’s best foot forward.
Second, they must find credible verifiers to get the message out that the campaign is not lost. When a candidate is behind in the polls, it often takes someone from the outside to help make his or her case. For example, when I was a senior adviser on former Republican Jim Webb’s U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia, we struggled to convince Democratic insiders in the primary that Webb was one of them.
Democrats were so uncertain about Webb’s Democratic conversion, in fact, that at one point during the primary, no one—literally no one—was writing checks to the campaign. We were so broke that we did not have the funds to make payroll or the upcoming month’s rent. Fortunately, the campaign had also been holding secret conversations with Democratic Senate leaders in an attempt to get them to break with tradition and endorse Webb in the primary, based on the argument that he was the only Democrat who could win in the general election. It worked. Several of them, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, came out publicly for Webb. Democrats had their verifier, the checks began to roll in, and Webb won.
Likewise, I managed Mark Warner’s gubernatorial campaign in 2001, and recall when he fell behind in the Virginia race. After the 9/11 attacks, voters suddenly wanted a candidate with more law-and-order credentials, and his opponent, Attorney General Mark Early, fit the bill. To counter that, we rolled out the endorsement of police and firefighter organizations that we had been sitting on and waiting for the right moment to release. It helped a lot, and Warner went on to win.
Finally, shifting the focus from your campaign problems to a major problem with your opponent does more than just help improve public opinion. It can also lift morale among your team by giving them a reason to attack your opponent rather than defending their candidate, which is always a more demoralizing task. When I worked on Sen. Bob Kerrey’s re-election campaign in 1994 in Nebraska, he fell behind because of a campaign ad by his opponent that wrongly claimed Kerrey had stayed the execution of a murderer when he was governor. In response, our campaign drew attention to a letter Kerrey’s opponent had written which asked for the release of an attempted murderer from prison. Kerrey’s opponent pulled the offending advertisement. And Kerrey went on to win.
In short, campaign managers for both sides have tools at their disposal. With one month to go, the argument from the Romney camp’s leaders to both their staff and the public needs to be that the polls are too close and the electorate too unhappy. On top of this, the new millions in campaign dollars flowing in thanks to the Citizens United decision—most of which are going to Romney—have never before factored into a presidential race and offer the GOP nominee a potent ace in the hole. And just as Romney surprised many with his performance in the first debate, there are significant moments yet in this campaign that can help him close any existing gap in support.
Meanwhile, the Obama team’s managers should remind staffers, supporters and donors that the Electoral College math is still very much in Obama’s favor. One uninspired debate performance is unlikely to swing an entire election, particularly when there are two more debates left. Sharing data with the team on the campaign’s ground game, numbers in key swing states and blockbuster fundraising months like September should also help to boost morale.
With the right communication strategy, campaign surrogates and message shifting, campaign managers and advisers have the tools to lead their teams in a more positive direction. As all of these homestretch moments begin to play out, campaign leaders on both sides will have a shot at ridding their campaigns of any lingering pessimism and asking the other side, “Who’s sweating now?”
Steve Jarding is a lecturer in public policy at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition to the names mentioned above, he has served as a senior strategist or campaign manager for Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), as well as run National Leadership Committees for Edwards and Bob Kerrey.