Campaigns at their heart are moments in time. As the candidates and their supporters walk the streets and talk to the people in the barbershops and beauty shops and churches and at their front doors, they begin to get a sense of what really matters to people. Of course, they probably come into the campaign with a sense of what matters, but what matters to people can change quickly, and the successful campaign must be nimble enough to adapt on the fly. It’s the difference between preparing for the game and actually playing it.
The successful campaigns seize on that feeling in the air (the Germans call it Zeitgeist), take that grass roots intelligence and mold and fashion it into a rationale and reason for the voters to support their candidate. They “brand” the campaign, create a memorable campaign slogan and perhaps an unmemorable set of bland priorities packaged into a 4- or 5- or 6-point plan. (4 seems to be the number this year in the mayoral race). And to most people, that will be the “campaign” that they see. If they’ve got some money, they’ll put together push cards to hand out when they campaign, glossy 4-color mailers that they’ll have delivered to as many homes as they can afford, and if they are really flush with money, run TV and radio commercials, especially if they are not well known.
That being said, most of us do not wake up one morning, and while sipping that first cup of coffee, decide “I think I’ll run for mayor”. If we do, our saner, more rational self usually takes over and escorts our wacky and crazed self back to his or her original seat, somewhere way up in the balcony, where the other rowdy selves sit. It is only the exceptional person (and I use that term to mean deviating from the norm) who will, while sipping their second cup of coffee, begin to plan a glorious and ultimately triumphant run for office, and imagine themselves standing on a stage with their left hand on a bible and their right hand raised in the air, in front of a large cheering crowd, as they proudly and triumphantly say “I do solemnly swear…”.
If you have never really been involved in a political campaign then I must let you in on a little secret. Campaigns at their heart are infused with a peculiar type of mania, a political mania (mania: an excessive and unreasonable enthusiasm). Perhaps infected would be a better description, for the lifeblood of campaigns is excessive and unreasonable enthusiasm. It’s what gets a campaign and especially the candidate through the long days, the shaking of hands, the debates and the criticisms and the hard questions. That mania is the fuel of a campaign. And prolonged exposure to that kind of attention and encouragement can make it a psychologically disorienting and sometimes life-changing experience for the candidate. Every serious candidate risks that the experience will mutate into something between a vice and an addiction. And for the truly disturbed and affected candidates, it can bring them to that moment in their life when they must stand up in front of a roomful of people and say “Hi, my name is Dominic, and I’m a recovering politician.”
But enough about me already.
One of the things I’m puzzled by in the current Jackson mayoral race is that with only 4 weeks left in the campaign, none of the challengers in the race seem to be singly focused on the task of convincing the voters that they must fire Mayor Johnson. That’s not to say that they haven’t gone after him in press releases and in the debates that have occurred to date, and in their door to door canvassing. But for all of the campaigns that have a serious chance of defeating the mayor, their primary message seems to be only that it time for change. And change, contrary to what you might think and to some recent presidential campaigns, is not always a winner in the minds of the voters, for most voters are at heart cautious and conservative (not in the political sense) by nature, willing to stick with the status quo no matter how underwhelming it might be if the alternative is not convincing.
And in doing so I think the Lee, Quinn and Lumumba campaigns ignore one of the primary (sorry for the pun, but I couldn’t resist) and most fundamental rules of campaign strategery. And that: before the voter can think about hiring someone new for the job, you have to get them to believe that they must fire the person who is now in the job. Which leads me to DeLeo Rule of Politics #4: which goes like this: In any race against an incumbent, otherwise known as the person who is already doing the job you are running for, your first order of business as a candidate is to convince the electorate that it is in their best interest to fire the incumbent. It’s a two-step process: get the voter to fire the incumbent, and then convince them that you have the right stuff for the job and that they should hire you, made more difficult if there are other candidates challenging for the office. But the successful campaign must absolutely succeed at the first task if they are to be successful at the second.
It would appear to me that the 3 candidates who I believe have the likeliest chance of unseating the mayor or at least reaching the runoff election against him have made the calculation that the electorate has already decided that it is time to retire the mayor, and that they need not concentrate on reinforcing that idea with any great emphasis. Take a look at their campaign slogans: Jonathan Lee’s campaign slogan is “Our time for greatness”. Regina Quinn’s shortens that to “It’s time (or “It’s time for a new direction)”. Chokwe Lumumba’s says “One city…one aim…one destiny”. As you can see, none of those slogans, except perhaps Quinn’s indirectly, addresses the idea of firing the mayor. And that’s a strategic miscalculation, I believe.
I would argue that the mayor is asking the voters to do an extraordinary thing: to give him, after 12 years in office (interrupted by Mayor Melton’s term, which many in hindsight would say was caused by the voter’s frustration with Mayor Johnson’s glacial pace of governing), an additional 4 years to fix the problems of the city. He is asking the voters to not hold him accountable for the perceived decline of the city during his terms in office, to see him as a stabilizer of the city’s fortunes, ready to complete (might he run for a fifth term?) in the next 4 years what he has been working on for his 12 years in office. It seems like a tall order, and in 4 weeks, we’ll see if the voters buy that argument. And whether the challengers have decided that they need to turn up the heat on their criticism of him.
To come: Campaign Strategery, Part 2.