Napolitan’s campaign lessons

CampaignJoe Napolitan’s “100 things I have learned in 30 years as a political consultant”

In 1989, media maven David Garth gave me a dog-eared copy of Joseph Napolitan’s legendary paper “100 things I have learned in 30 years as a political consultant”. For David Garth to recommend somebody else’s work was a great compliment, and in Napolitan’s case, rightly so. Even now, more than twenty years later, his observations are still relevant and his insights often spot on. That’s why, over the course of the coming months, I will publish Napolitan’s lessons here as a tribute to this great man.

Lesson #1: strategy is the single most important factor in a political campaign

“This is the most important lesson I have learned in 30 years. The right strategy can survive a mediocre campaign, but even a brilliant campaign is likely to fail if the strategy is wrong. The strategy must be adapted to fit the campaign; you can’t adapt the campaign to fit the strategy. Also this small but essential point: if you can’t write it down, you don’t have a strategy.”

Lesson #2: there is no such thing as a bandwagon effect

“For years, in countries all over the world, including the United States, campaign workers have told me ‘people like to be with a winner; they will vote for the candidate they think will win’. Thereupon they proceed to release to the press poll reports showing their candidate ahead, in the misguided expectation that this information will cause the voters to line up behind their candidate. If anything, I have found the reverse to be true: the supporters whose candidate is perceived as behind are motivated to work harder, while those of the candidate seen to be ahead tend to get overconfident and lazy. Perhaps the most glaring example of this syndrome I know of was in Venezuela in 1978, where the candidate of Accion Democratica, Luis Pinerua Ordaz, ran double-page newspaper ads for two weeks before the election with banner headlines reading: ‘THE ELECTION IS OVER. PINERUA HAS WON’. Well, for Penerua the election was over: he lost. But the most interesting statistic was this: the turnout in that election was 5 percent lower than in the 1973 election, and the drop was greatest in areas of normal AD strength. Apparently Adecos believed their leader, so they stayed home. A costly lesson.”

Lesson #3: the size of crowds bears little relationship to the vote

“Again, let me cite an example from Venezuela (where I am now working on my fourth consecutive election cycle): in one campaign the party I work for, Accion Democratica, held a rally in downtown Caracas. It was mobbed: more than 50.000 people turned out. Impressive. Two days later the Socialist Party, which never gets more than 5 percent of the vote, staged a rally on the same site — with the same turnout. In 1968 I was director of media for Vice-President Hubert Humphrey in his campaign against Richard Nixon. One day Nixon toured Philadelphia; the crowds were enormous. Humphrey went through a few days later; the crowds were small. Humphrey won Philadelphia by 100.000 votes. The Republicans obviously did a better job in turning out the crowd but, at least in this case, not the vote”.

Lesson #4: polls are essential but don’t be fooled by them

“The only practical reason to take a political poll is to obtain information that will help you win the election. If the poll won’t do that, you are better off spending your money on something else. Perhaps the least important information in a political poll is who is ahead at any given moment. Polls are not infallible, especially in primaries, or when they are taken before the campaign actually begins. I won’t run a campaign without adequate polling — but neither will I place total dependence on the polls. Nor will I make my polls public unless there is an unusual and extremely good reason for doing so”.

Lesson #5: never underestimate the importance of a divided party

“Earlier this year I worked on the presidential election in the Dominican Republic for Jacobo Majluta, president of the Senate and candidate of the PRD, the same party as the president, who was not seeking re-election. The party was badly split by a primary struggle in which Majluta defeated José Fransisco Pena Gomez, mayor of Santo Domingo, friend and confidant of President Salvador Jorge Blanco. After a shaky start, Majluta’s campaign moved along nicely and I was confident we would win, and astonished when we lost to 78-year old, legally blind Joaquin Balaguer. (I have nothing against President Balaguer; personally, I like him, but I did not believe he was physically capable of being president). Our exit polls showed Majluta with 51 percent of the vote; reportedly Balaguer’s exit polls also showed Majluta with 51 percent of the vote (this was a three-way race). In the end, we lost by a couple of points. Later we learned that the intraparty rift was so fierce that President Jorge Blanco himself voted against his own party’s candidate for president, and many Pena Gomez supporters actively worked for Balaguer, the main opposition candidate. Our surveys did not detect this phenomenon. We underestimated the damage caused by divisions in the party. And it cost us dearly”.

Lesson #6: don’t be afraid to bring in the real experts

“The sense of insecurity that exists among campaign managers and advisers should never be underestimated. For some reason, this seems to be particularly true in the Democratic Party in the United States. In several recent presidential elections, the advisors and workers who helped obtain the nomination for a particular candidate blocked out talented specialists from working in the general election, some of whom had worked for other candidates in the primary, some of whom had not worked for any primary candidate. It broke my heart in the 1984 presidential election to see all the talent on the sidelines not being used by the Democratic candidate – when he clearly needed all the help he could get. And this wasn’t the first time. If you have access to the skills of a Tony Schwartz of a Bob Squier or a David Garth and you don’t use them, you are making a mistake. If you win the election, everyone can be a hero. And if you lose, there is no glory for anyone. Use the best you can get and don’t worry about whose feelings may be hurt”.

Lesson #7: most campaigns don’t know how to use consultants properly

“This seems absurd but it is true, and it is more true in foreign elections than it is in the United States. A few years ago I become so concerned about this that I wrote a paper ‘How to Use Political Consultants Effectively’, which I now distribute as a matter of course to any prospective client who inquires about my services. Most candidates and their managers really have litte idea about what a consultant does, or should do. You’ve got to make this clear to them at the beginning, so their expectations are neither exaggerated nor unrealistic.”

Lesson #8: television spots showing large crowds are of little value; they just make the candidate feel good

“In one Latin American campaign, the advertising agency proudly showed me 22 spots they had produced for their candidate. At least 18 of them showed nothing but cheering crowds; not one of them showed the candidate talking to the people about what he would do for them if he were elected. We made the necessary adjustments in that campaign, but this phenomenon exists, and it sometimes is difficult to persuade inexperienced campaign workers that such spots really don’t help very much”.

  Lesson #9: timing is critical

“Timing is a critical part of overall strategy. Using an issue too early – or too late – can nullify its impact. Each situation is different. For a candidate who is not well known, an early media campaign can be essential. For a well-known candidate, early media may be wasteful. If your opponent makes an easily refutable charge, sometimes it is better to let him repeat it several times so that he will look silly when you counterattack. But sometimes it is essential to answer the charge immediately. It’s hard to teach timing. Much of it is instinctive. And in this era of computerized games, it’s nice to know that human judgment still plays a critical role in the campaign”.

 Lesson #10: how much money you have to spend is not as important as how you spend it

“While no one can deny it is comforting to have all the money you need to conduct your campaign, it’s not always the candidate with access to the largest amount of money who wins. There are many factors involved, of course, but certainly one of these is how effectively you spend the funds you do have available. It’s easy to squander money in a political campaign – and many candidates do so. And occasionally it is possible to drown an opponent in a sea of cash. But in most campaigns, assuming that each candidate has at least the minimum amount of money to mount a decent campaign, the likely winner is the one who spends his money best – or, put another way, succeeds in getting the biggest bangs for his bucks”.

Lesson #11: if something works, keep using it until it stops working

“I have been involved in several campaigns in which our opponents ran television spots we knew were hurting us, and then they inexplicably pulled them off the air. After one of these campaigns I asked a consultant to the opponent why this was done. He said they felt the spot had served its purpose, and they wanted to come on the air with new material. New isn’t necessarily better. Or, as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. 

Lesson #12: make sure the message is clear and understandable

“Part of an overall strategy involves defining the right message or messages to be communicated to specific target groups, or the electorate as a whole. Whatever the message is, it should be clear and easily understood by everyone. The classic example is Ronald Reagan’s message in the 1980 presidential campaign: ‘I will make America strong and lower taxes’. Nothing could be clearer – or more effective. If Jimmy Carter had a message in that campaign, no one has yet figured out what it was.

Lesson #13: never underestimate the intelligence of the voters, nor overestimate the amount of knowledge at their disposal

“The electorate is not stupid. But often it does not have sufficient information at its disposal to make right (i.e., favorable to your candidate) decisions. It’s not their responsibility to go out and get this information; it is your responsibility to serve it up to them, on a silver platter if necessary. If, at the end of a campaign, the voters still don’t understand what your candidate is trying to tell them, that’s the candidate’s fault – not the voters’. No longer am I surprised at the sophistication shown by the voters in response to survey research questions, but I occasionally still am astonished by the lack of sophistication on the part of the candidate, and often that of his staff”.

Lesson #14: negative attacks are better handled by third parties in paid media

“This is not the place to discuss the merits or demerits, the morality or immorality, of negative attacks on an opponent. Personally, I follow a simple rule: the candidate’s public record is fair game for attack, his private life is not. But negative attacks are a fact of political life, and if you are going to use them, you might as well use them as effectively as you can. I prefer never to have my candidate attack his opponent in paid television or radio spots; I prefer always to have my candidate emerge as the ‘nice guy’ on television. When you feel an attack is justified, then let the negative message be carried by an announcer, or the copy in a print ad, or by someone else other than your candidate”.

Lesson #15: don’t underestimate the power and penetration of radio

“I’ve been singing this song for a long time but some people don’t want to tune in. Granted, television may be the most emotional and persuasive of all the media – but radio is a close second, and has several advantages over television: it is less expensive to produce, it can be produced quickly, it can be targeted more effectively than television, it costs less to put on the air. Anyone who has any doubts about the power of radio should sit in Tony Schwartz’s office for an hour some day and listen to some of the spots he has prepared for candidates and causes. That will make a convert out of you. To me, one of the worst – and laziest – things you can do in a campaign is run the sound track of a television spot as a radio spot. That’s as bad as running the same copy in a television ad and a print ad. They are different mediums. I’ve seen candidates spend $150.000 or more on television production in a campaign, and then scream murder if they are asked to approve a $25.000 budget for radio production. Actually, there are more good television producers around than good radio producers – but just because someone can produce a decent television spot doesn’t automatically mean he can produce effective radio. And they prove it all the time”.

 Lesson #16: don’t underestimate the impact of an unpopular national administration

“This is another one of those hidden obstacles, like trying to measure the impact of a divided party. I also believe this phenomenon is more important in presidential elections than in any other. Assuming the merits of the candidates are about equal, if one represents the party of an unpopular administration, he’ll probably lose. This is a condition to factor into your equation when you are trying to determine the attitudes of voters”.

Lesson #17: perception is more important than reality

“You don’t have to be in this business very long before you learn this fact. If the voters think Candidate X is an honest man, he can steal the gold leaf off the state house dome and get away with it; if they think Candidate B is a crook, he can have four cardinals and 16 bishops attest to his honesty, and people will still think he is a crook. The best living example of this (and maybe the best in all of history) is Ronald Reagan: he has American voters (a majority of them anyway) convinced he is protecting their money with a tight fist, while in reality the deficits his government has incurred are staggering almost beyond imagination. And while Reagan is mortgaging the farm, he’s also accusing Democrats of being the big spenders – and getting away with it! Astonishing, frustrating (if you are a Democrat), and true. You take reality; Ill take perception any day.” 

Lesson #18: running a campaign is not a democratic process

 “It’s more like a military operation — at least if it is done right. All voices should not be equal in campaign discussions and decisions. A campaign should have experts and specialists in various areas. Their opinions should carry weight. If you need an operation, you should pay more attention to the surgeon’s opinion than that of the ambulance driver: if you need to get to the hospital in a hurry, than take the ambulance driver’s advice. I remember working in the re-election campaign of a governor, who shall be nameless here, who, when major decisions in a campaign needed to be made, would ask six or eight of his top advisors what they thought, and then turn to his driver, an ex-convict, and ask him what he thought. Democratic but hardly effective. The ultimate responsibility for making campaign decisions should rest with the campaign manager. If he wants to talk to the candidate about these decisions, fine. If he wants to accept a consensus from his staff, fine. But he certainly shouldn’t make his decisions on the basis of one-person, one-vote.”

Lesson #19: make sure your candidate understands the issues

“Those outside our business would consider this a simplistic statement; those in it know what I am talking about. Never mind the extreme cases, like the candidate for the United States Senate who once asked me ‘what is this détente business anyway?’, just consider the run-of-the-mill candidate who doesn’t do his homework. Earlier this year a television station in Maryland embarrassed some candidates for the United States Senate by asking them some simple questions on foreign and domestic policy. If it had been an examination in high school civics class, they all would have failed. And it’s bad enough when the candidate isn’t informed about the other guy’s issues: what is really bad is when he isn’t informed about his own issues. It happens.”

Lesson #20: don’t complicate the campaign

“In a book I wrote in 1972 called ‘The Election Game and How to Win It’, I said there were three simple steps to winning any campaign:

(1) Decide what you are going to say.

(2) Decide how you are going to say it.

(3) Say it.

I’ve been in campaigns with so many committees, sub-committees, liaison committees, special interest directors, colonels, captains, lieutenants and sub-lieutenants you have trouble finding directions to the men’s room, never mind trying to get some clear picture of what is going on. Being a campaign manager or consultant in a major campaign is like being a professional football coach: you may know 1000 different plays, but you know you can only use about 25 of them in any given game. I’ve seen campaign managers waste a lot of money on silly things – like expensive newsletters that are mailed mainly to supporters and campaign workers – only to wind up with insufficient funds to pay for an adequate media campaign. Everything should be as clear and uncomplicated as you can make it, from the table of organization to the graphics on the letterhead”.

Lesson #21: don’t get hung up on slogans and logos

“I like Tony Schwartz’ reasoning here: ‘If it works for a particular spot, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t’. Too often a candidate or his advertising manager or agent will get so hung up on a slogan or a logo – and they may be perfectly good slogans or logos – that they will insist they be used in every television spot, every radio spot, every brochure, every print ad, etc. Use them when they work, and if they seem out of place, use something else. Or nothing at all”.

Lesson #22: protect home base first

“If you have a strong base of support, protect that first, then go after other voters. It also is easier to increase the percentage of your vote in a favorable environment than to get an equal number of votes in a hostile environment. Don’t take your base for granted”.

Lesson #23: don’t be afraid to invade opposition territory

“This may seem to contradict the previous point but it doesn’t: first you protect home base, then you invade opposition territory. We often run into candidates who won’t speak before certain audiences because ‘they’re all Republicans’ (I’m sure Republican consultants run into the same problem with Republican candidates). I try to explain to my reluctant candidate why he should talk to those groups in simple terms, like this: ‘If you speak to 100 Democrats, and you have all their votes before you go in, all you can do, at best, is hold your own, and you may lose some. If you talk to 100 Republicans who start off being opposed to you, you can’t lose any votes – and you just might gain some’. That’s why I advise white candidates to go into black neighborhoods, black candidates to go into white neighborhoods, rich candidates to go into poor neighborhoods, city slickers to go down to the farm”.

Lesson #24: what you say in Peoria can be heard in Pasadena

“Candidates sometimes have a peculiarly anachronistic idea that once they are out of their home town or district or state they can get away with saying things they wouldn’t say at home, forgetting (I guess) about such things as instant communication. My favorite example of this is hoary with age; it goes all the way back to 1962, when I was doing Endicott Peabody’s campaign for governor against the incumbent governor of Massachusetts, John Volpe. Governor Volpe, a competent man who later went on to serve in the Nixon cabinet, made a speech in Portland, Oregon, in which he said he was opposed to the medicare program proposed by President Kennedy. Not surprisingly, we heard about it in Boston. This was only a few days before the election. I churned out an instant brochure with this message: ‘Governor Volpe is opposed to President Kennedy’s medicare program. Endicott Peabody is in favor of it’. We mailed this brochure to every voter in Massachusetts over the age of 60; many received their brochures the day before the election. Peabody won the election by less than 3500 votes out of almost 2.5 million votes cast. I can’t believe that Volpe’s gaffe on the West Coast didn’t have something to do with his defeat”.

Lesson #25: let your candidate talk to the people

“In this era of ‘creative’ television commercials, there is a tendency to make a whole package of spots in which the candidate never once talks directly to the people. This is a mistake. The people want to see and hear the candidate. Maybe he doesn’t look like Robert Redford or speak like Ronald Reagan; they still want to see him, hear him, get a feel for him. I think those of us in the consulting business sometimes make the mistake of always assuming we know more than the candidate. This isn’t true, and the longer I stay in the business, the more convinced I am that the eyeball-to-eyeball (‘face to camera’, as they say in Great Britain) spot can be one of the most effective weapons in our arsenal”.

Lesson #26: every campaign is different; every campaign is the same

“The object of any political campaign is to persuade voters to mark their ‘X’ after one name instead of another. In every campaign, certain basics are similar if not identical. Every campaign contains the same essential ingredients: polls, strategy, message, advertising, organization, fund raising. But each campaign has its points of dissimilarity, and the approach and strategy must be defined and adapted to conform with existing elements. Just as generals often are accused of fighting the last war, we should never let ourselves try to ‘fight the last campaign’, but adjust our tactics to meet current needs”.

Lesson #27: try not to self-destruct

“It’s astonishing how often this simple rule is broken. While I concede other factors were involved, I also am convinced that Walter Mondale lost whatever chance he might have had to win the U.S. presidency in 1984 in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention when he announced that if he were elected he would raise taxes. There may be an example, somewhere, sometime, of a candidate winning an election on a promise to raise taxes; I don’t happen to know who or when or where. I cite Mondale only because the example is recent and glaring; candidates manage to shoot themselves in the foot with astonishing regularity”.

Lesson #28: don’t let your opponent have a free ride

“While I am not a great proponent of the negative campaign, neither can I be considered a ‘turn the other cheek’ consultant. Too often I see, or work for, candidates who refuse to answer an opponent’s charges, refuse to refute reckless accusations made against him, don’t want to ‘dignify’ the opponent by replying to his remarks. If your candidate has a solid lead, and you are confident your campaign plan is so well designed it can compensate for these charges, or if you frequently research the opponent’s charges and find they are having no impact at all, then maybe, maybe, you can get away with letting your opponent have a free ride. But I’d advise against it. A candidate is sometimes reluctant to answer an opponent’s charges because he feels he has to answer them himself, and he ‘doesn’t want to get down in the gutter with that guy’. Noble sentiments that not infrequently lead to the loss of an election. The candidate doesn’t have to refute each and every charge personally, but the campaign should do so. Otherwise you run the risk that the unrefuted statement, often repeated, will be perceived as the truth, and then you can be in real trouble. Also, you should never underestimate the cumulative damage such unanswered charges can cause”.

Lesson #29: start early

“You can never start planning your campaign too early. You can begin the campaign too soon; that’s something else again. In my own experience, the best example I know of long planning period/short campaign was Mike Gravel’s upset victory over Senator Ernest Gruening in the 1968 Democratic primary for United States Senator in Alaska. We planned Gravel’s campaign in December, 1966; the execution of the campaign, pretty much according to what we had decided to do 18 months later, occurred during two weeks in August, 1968. By starting early you have plenty of time to take and analyze polls, study your opponent and his likely moves in depth, design and discuss various possible strategies, select the best specialists to work on the campaign, and mentally prepare your candidate. When you start late, it doesn’t mean that you have fewer things to do, but merely less time to do them”. 

Lesson #30: you may be able to polish a candidate but you can’t really change him

“I’ve seen candidates who have improved (and some who have gotten worse) in the course of campaigning, but I’ve never been involved with a candidate who really changed very much. Sure, you can do some cosmetic things: convince him to wear dark suits, cut his hair differently, change the color of his socks, buy more attractive eyeglasses, maybe even get him to be more prompt. But, almost all the time, you’ve really got to work with what you have, so you may as well adjust to this at the beginning of the campaign, and adapt your campaign plan to fit your candidate, just as a football coach adapts his strategy to fit his players, because he can’t make his players do things they are not capable of doing”. 

Lesson #31: latch on to existing organizations

“Creating an organization can be a formidable task. There are consultants – Matt Reese may be the best – who have made a career out of creating ‘instant organizations’. But this can be expensive and difficult. Whenever possible, I have found it is much better to latch on to an existing organization, whether this happens to be a political party or some sort of special interest support group. Organizations which share the candidate’s views on highly emotional subjects, such as abortion, gun control and nuclear freeze, can be of great organizational assistance to the campaign. At the very least, they can provide useful mailing lists; at best, they can provide bodies, experience and sometimes even money”.

Lesson #32: try to instill some sense of priority in your candidate

“Rationally and logically, every candidate knows that just about every appearance he makes on television, especially in paid commercials purchased in prime time, will be seen by more voters than will see him in person during the entire course of the campaign. But virtually every candidate resists spending the time necessary to permit the best possible television production. They think nothing of spending several hours with a group of 100 voters, most of whom are already committed, but asking them to spend the same amount of time for production of a television spot that will be seen by hundreds of thousands of voters invariably creates resistance. This is why it is so important to have as the campaign scheduler someone who understands the importance of various activities, such as media production, and who will cancel a breakfast with 50 supporters so the candidate can have more time to prepare for television or rehearse an important speech or take a day’s rest or discuss critical strategy decisions. Years ago it used to annoy me to go into a campaign as a consultant, relatively highly paid in terms of the campaign budget, and sit around idly while the candidate met with groups he could see at any time. Now it just amuses me, but it’s still a waste”.

Lesson #33: when you use new technologies, make sure you bring in specialists

“It’s not enough to buy or rent a couple of computers and hire a kid who has taken a course in computer programming and then believe you have ‘computerized’ your campaign. It’s like going out and buying an expensive video production unit without knowing how to run it properly. If your campaign calls for any sort of sophisticated equipment or procedures, make certain you hire specialists who really do know how to operate that equipment or execute those procedures. I have a degree of familiarity with how computers can be used effectively in political campaigns; it would never occur to me to try to run a computer operation because I don’t possess the technical skills that are required”.

Lesson #34: endorsements are fine but you’ve got to use them properly

“Popularity is not easily transferable. If the most popular political figure in the district (or in the state or in the country) endorses your candidate, this doesn’t necessarily mean all his voters are going to vote for your candidate. Used carefully and selectively, endorsements can be extremely helpful. Just this year I was involved in a campaign where our opponent claimed my candidate was supported only by the political bosses, so our first wave of television spots consisted of man-on-the-street interviews of average, ordinary people saying good things about my candidate. If a candidate is thought to be an intellectual lightweight, get some heavy thinkers to endorse his candidacy and talk about his intelligence; if he is perceived to lack minority support, get some blacks and Hispanics or whatever the minority groups are in the district to endorse him in commercials. Endorsements and testimonials are a method of increasing the candidate’s credibility among certain groups of voters. Used effectively, they can be helpful, but don’t expect too much of them. I’m not much for the ‘celebrity endorsement’, but there are occasions when great testimonials can be given by non-political people who might say ‘I’ve never publicly endorsed a political candidate before, but let me tell you why in this election I’m supporting Joe Jones…’”.

Lesson #35: don’t create exaggerated expectations – especially if you are likely to win

“This is particularly true in gubernatorial or presidential elections in which your candidate has a good chance of winning, and hopes eventually to run for re-election. If you promise more than you can deliver, this will cost you at the next election. If the people forget what you’ve promised (and some of them are sure to remember), you can be certain your opponent next time around will remind them. Better to be more modest in what is promised, and to set goals you have a reasonable chance of achieving. Also, sometimes the promise is so exaggerated it simply doesn’t ring true and damages a candidate’s credibility”.

Lesson #36: proceed cautiously in foreign elections

“First, because you are a foreigner, there will be natural skepticism about your ability, or understanding of the problems. If you are an American, these problems usually are compounded. A good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless because I want him to remain a good friend, used to drive me to distraction in early discussions with presidential candidates in foreign countries. After one two-hour meeting, he was prepared to design the whole campaign, tell the locals what they were doing wrong, and give some very simple solutions to extremely complicated problems. Some of the time his analysis was right on the mark, but its effectiveness was dissipated by the speed in which his recommendations were make. The first objective in dealing with candidates and their staffs in foreign countries is to win their confidence. Ideas they might reject out of hand if offered in the first meeting might well be accepted, or at least seriously considered, after they have developed some confidence in you. Proceed slowly and cautiously, even if you know right from the beginning what needs to be done”.

Lesson #37: always let the campaign staff know you aren’t looking for their job

“When I used to do a lot of campaigns in the United States, invariably in my first meeting with the candidate’s staff I have a little speech about my role in the campaign. I explained that I had no interest in being the governor’s chief of staff or press secretary or head of the state lottery; all I wanted to do was help win the election and go home. I wanted them to look upon me as a resource, a support system, not a threat. Usually this worked, but not always; I know that in some campaigns some staff members, invariaby those least secure about their own abilities, tried to undercut my recommendations. Not much you can do about this; it’s an occupational hazard. But if you make the effort at the beginning to win the cooperation of the candidate’s staff, and assure them your role ends on election day, no matter what the outcome, then it’s usually an easier campaign”. 

Lesson #38: if your advice isn’t being accepted, quit

“I realize this is easy advice for a financially-secure, older consultant to give, but it’s a dictum I followed in earlier, leaner years. If your advice is being constantly overruled or ignored, you have two choices: give in or get out. I always preferred to get out — not that it happened all that often, maybe three or four times in 30 years. Once I was retained as media consultant in a New York state gubernatorial primary. The candidate was a good guy but frustrating to work for. One afternoon the representative of the advertising agency hired by the campaign and I had a cup of coffee that turned into a mutual complaint session. By the time we finished our second cup of coffee, we both agreed to quit. We felt a lot better; the candidate lost. Maybe he would have lost anyway; who knows? What I usually tell the candidate and/or his campaign managers in situations like that is: ‘:ook, you are telling people I am the media director in this campaign, but I’m really not, because you are not accepting my recommendations. You are paying me money for advice you aren’t using, and I’m spending my time working in a campaign where my advice obviously isn’t needed or wanted. Why don’t we part company and stay friends?'” 

Lesson #39: get your financial arrangements settled at the beginning

“Get your financial arrangements settled at the beginning, it’s better not to do a campaign than to do it and not get paid for it. You learn as you get older. Early in my career, after meeting with the candidate and his team, I’d often design what amounted to a whole campaign plan and submit that with my proposal to work for the candidate. Until I got smarter, they’d often reject the proposal for what- ever reason, and then use the campaign plan pretty much as I had written it. Now I don’t write a plan until we have agreed on a contract. There are certain expenses built into my fees. For example, first class air fare. When you make 40 trips out of the country in a single year, as I have done, it’s not just a question of comfort, it’s a question of survival. If any campaign asks me to fly coach, I usually tell them that if they can’t afford first class airplane tickets, they probably can’t afford my services anyway. Unless I know the candidate well, or have worked for him before, I now insist on quarterly payments in advance. This is particularly important overseas, where you have essentially no recourse if a candidate or party refuses to pay for your services. I’m perfectly willing to do campaigns for nothing, or for a token fee, if the candidate is a good friend, or if it’s a cause or candidate I really believe in and want to work for. But if we are talking about a business arrangement, it should be conducted on a businesslike basis and that means being paid on schedule. I have absolutely no sympathy for candidates, especially those with great personal wealth, who expect consultants or technicians to wait for payments, or to cut their fees. The surest way to avoid problems is to get a chunk of money up front at least that way you can’t get hurt too badly if the second payment never comes. This is even more important for people like television producers, who need to invest substantial amounts of money in production costs. In my business, when I used to work without advance payment, if I didn’t get paid, I was usually out only some time and travel expenses. In honesty, I must say that more than 90 per cent of the political candidates I have worked for have paid me in full. A few didn’t, and their names are etched in my memory”.

Lesson #40: take nothing for granted

“This is critical advice, even if it is almost impossible to follow, because at times you simply must rely on the information provided by others in the campaign. In a recent presidential election, we got burned badly in the rural areas of a country, even though I had been assured ‘everything is fine’ in those areas. If you are suspicious something may not be as it seems, or as it should be, try to run an independent check. This might mean a flash poll using a different pollster in an area you have doubts about. If you are told money is ‘no problem’ but you know suppliers and producers haven’t been paid, ask to see the books. (In fact, whenever anyone tells me something ‘is no problem’, I begin to get suspicious.) If you keep asking enough questions, usually you can satisfy yourself that the matter you are concerned about is actually under control, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, just hope there’s enough time left before the election to do something about it.”

Lesson #41: if you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it and try something else

“There are few perfect campaigns. Inevitably, mistakes will occur. Usually, in the overall context of a long campaign, a few mistakes won’t hurt much — unless you compound then by continuing to repeat them. In a presidential campaign I was involved this year, a television producer made several spots for the candidate I later became involved with. The spots generated a howl of protest from supporters of the candidate, who claimed they would withdraw their support if the spots continued to run. Faced with this, the producer became stubborn, said it would take awhile for the message of the spots to sink in, and urged they be run for at least two weeks. The campaign manager wisely decided to withdraw them immediately, supporters quieted down, and the candidate eventually won. Earlier in this paper I suggested ‘lf it ain’t broke, don’t fix it it.’ The opposite is true as well: ‘If it is broke, fix it’. Sometimes candidates, managers and consultants would rather proceed with a harmful policy rather than admit they are wrong and make changes. Everybody makes mistakes; the smart ones correct them.”

Lesson #42: research your candidate as thoroughly as you do your opponent

“In almost every campaign, an individual or team is assigned to research the opponent’s record, in the hope of uncovering some things that can be used against him. In my campaigns, I insist we make the same kind of effort researching our own candidate. If we don’t, the opponent surely will, and if there is anything in the candidate’s background or record we will need to defend in a campaign, I want to know it sooner rather than later. Maybe the opponent’s researchers never will find out about it; more likely they will. Better to be prepared. I always try to have a private meeting with a new candidate to ask him if there is anything on his record that could prove embarrassing later in the campaign. Sometimes candidates tell you the truth; sometimes they don’t.

My favorite story here concerns a southern candidate for governor, a free-wheeling bachelor. When I asked him the question, this conversation ensued:

‘Joe, do you know what they say about me down here?’

– ‘No. What do they say?’

‘They say I drink whiskey and chase women.’

– ‘Do you?’

‘Of course I do.’

How can you hate a guy like that?”

Lesson # 43: marginal improvements are important — and often decisive.

“I read a fascinating book this year which I strongly recommend to everyone in this business.  It is titled ‘Thinking in Time,’ by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May. One of the points they make is that ‘marginal improvements are important.’ While the authors weren’t referring to political campaigns, their advice is right on target. When you start a campaign with your candidate 30 or 40 points behind, there is no way you are going to make up this deficit in one gulp. You must chip away, make marginal improvements, over a period of time. But even more important, most elections are decided by close margins, and if you can make small improvements with every group of voters, these will add up.”

Lesson # 44: know when to use bold strokes and when not to.

“There are times when a bold stroke Is necessary to put some zip in your campaign. Usually, you can use a bold stroke if:

— Your campaign is drifting and needs a spark.

— You are in with the pack in a multicandidate race and need to pull out of the pack.

— You are behind and conventional tactics aren’t getting you anywhere.

However, by definition, a bold stroke can be dangerous and has the potential to backfire or be counterproductive. As a general rule, I recommend a bold stroke only when it appears nothing else will pull you out of a rut. But if you are ahead, the Polls are steady and favorable, your strategy is sound and working, then there is no need for any bold strokes. If they backfire, it could cost you the election. Knowing when to use a bold stroke is as important as knowing how to use one.”

Lesson # 45: the little things often are important.

“Numbers like billions and trillions of dollars are meaningless to most people. In order to reach then, you’ve got to relate to their level of understanding. For example, there was little complaint on the part of the American public about the country’s bloated military budget because few people could even visualize the numbers. But when it was revealed the Air Force was paying $700 for a toilet seat, or $125 for a hammer you could buy in a hardware store for five bucks, then people became aroused, because they could understand and relate to the situation in their own terms. Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff and a respected former governor of New Hampshire, ran an effective White House and was one of the most powerful men in the government, but he was forced to resign, and the credibility of the presidency was damaged, because he accepted a vicuna coat from a Boston financier, a coat worth maybe $200 at the time. So when you are looking for weak spots in your opponent, don’t always jump on the big things; the little ones could prove to be much more important in turning the campaign.”

Lesson # 46: Don’t let your candidate think that just because he has said something once everyone has heard it

“In the first place, to be a candidate, you must have a sizeable ego. Part of that ego is the belief that because you make a statement or a speech, the whole state (county, world, universe, etc) knows what you said and what your position is. I once had the president of a Third World country tell me that his people could recite his speeches by heart, that they all listened to his talks on television, that they all were familiar with his programs.

‘Fine,’ I said, ‘let’s take a poll.’

The poll showed not many people watched the television programs, those who did usually had little idea of what the president was talking about, and they had no idea at all about what he was doing. We made some changes. It’s not only in the Third World that candidates or heads of state have these attitudes; they are prevalent wherever I’ve worked. If your candidate says something good or important, repeat it and repeat it until the message sinks in. Don’t depend on a speech or news coverage to carry important campaign messages; reinforce them with paid advertising.”

Lesson #47: lf your media materials don’t work, throw them away no matter how much they cost

“There is a tendency to think that if you have paid a lot of money for a television spot or a brochure, that it must be good. Often is it; sometimes it isn’t. And if you ever discover that a television or radio spot or print piece is not working, or even worse, is counterproductive, then dump it immediately. At least you will save the cost of putting it on the air and if it really is bad, continuing to show it could damage your chances of winning the election. I might also suggest that you not let the producer make this decision. A few producers are willing to admit that some of their materials might not be working very well; few will ever say, “This has turned out to be a bad spot; let’s kill it”. Incidentally, I am not talking here about spots that have ‘burned out’ because they have been shown a lot; this can happen to perfectly good materials that need to be replaced with new material. I am talking about material that is bad from the start, and should never be run, or material which, after being shown a few times, clearly isn’t working.”

Lesson #48: Beware of easy solutions to complex problems 

“There aren’t any. If the problen is complex, chances are the solution also must be complex. There are ways of providing simple explanations of proposed solutions, but anyone who comes up with a ‘simple’ solution to crlme, drugs, unemployment, inflation, housing or a myriad of other complex problerns, clearly doesn’t even understand the problem, never mind the solution. I remember once becoming infuriated when, in the closing moments of a political television debate, the moderator asked each of several candidates in turn to tell in 30 seconds or less what they would do to solve the crime problem in that state. Now I think it is possible to deliver an impactive message in 30 seconds, but not to explain what a candidate would do to solve a problem like crime, unless he gave the kind of simplistic answer the question deserved, like ‘put them all in jail!”.

Lesson #49: Be leery of primary polls

“Great advances have been made in political polling in the past 20 years but one area which remains difficult to predict is the party primary. This holds true on all levels, from presidential primaries to local elections. One reason for this is the usually low turnout in the primary. Poll respondents may favor one candidate or another, but when only one in three or four turns out to vote, the results can be seriously skewed. Even when several screening questions are asked to try to eliminate those less likely to vote, the actual voting returns often bear little resemblance to poll results. If your candidate is running ahead in a primary poll, don’t assume you necessarily are going to win — and if you are running behind, don’t get discouraged, because primaries produce strange results”.

Lesson #50: Restrain impassioned amateurs

“A persistent problem for political professionals is the impassioned amateur, the person with enthusiasm but little experience, who does not have the knowledge to put the campaign in perspective. These people remind me of football fans who always want the coach to go for the first down when it is fourth down and a yard to go, and can’t understand why the coach sends in the punting team. On a volunteer level, these people usually are not much of a threat to the campaign because they are not in decision-making capacities. When they become really dangerous is if they hold important positions in the campaign, are large contributors who link their support to acceptance of their suggestions, and, perhaps worst of all, when they are related to the candidate and in a position to influence his thinking. As volunteers, or even as staff, working under direction and guidance, amateurs can be valuable. But be wary of letting them make major decisions; you could live to regret it”.

Lesson #51: Be prepared to produce media right to the end

“In years gone by, it was common practice for a campaign to contract with a television producer to make a package of spots or longer programs. Often the finished package was delivered four or five weeks before the election. Not any more. Today, you must be prepared to produce television, radio and newspaper ads right up to election eve. You must have the flexibility to capitalize on last-minute events and developments. Arrangements should be made with your producer to be available right to the end. If that is not possible, then at the very least reserve an hour of studio time each day for the final week of the campaign for instant production if needed”.

Lesson #52: Have a reason for what you do

“Matt Reese calls this the ‘why don’t we do this’ syndrome. It all gets back to strategy and planning. Ask some tough questions of yourself about every step taken in a campaign: Why are we doing this? What will we get from it? What will happen if we don’t do it? Is this the most effective way to use our money? If you are working to a strategy, there should be a good reason for every step you take  – and if you aren’t working to a strategy, you’re in trouble anyway”.

Lesson #53: Make sure you have good photographs of your candidate

“This should be one of the simplest steps in a political campaign. In actuality, it always proves to be one of the most difficult. One of my first recommendations at the beginning of a campaign is to get good new photographs of the candidate in various situations even if some good pictures already are available. I have found that you never have enough good photographs. What often happens is the candidate will resist taking the time early in the campaign to have a good photographer spend sufficient hours or days with him to produce a good photo file, and then, in the crush of the campaign, when pictures are needed for brochures and signs and print ads and a dozen other things, you are forced to use inferior photographs or grab some on the fly at the last minute. A corollary to having good pictures is hiring a top-flight still photographer. Get the best available; in the end, it will be worth the cost. More people will see your candidate’s picture than will ever see him in person”.

Lesson #54: Recognize your own limitations

“We’re all better at some things than we are at others. No one I know in this business is equally talented in all phases of politics or campaigning. The best ones know what they do best, and are not hesitant about bringing in experts in other fields. Sometimes individuals who are truly talented in one area, such as television production, get themselves and their candidates in big trouble by trying to expand this expertise into other areas, where they are much less effective. Pollsters are another group who fall into this trap: they often believe they are as expert in designing campaign strategy just because they have obtained some interesting numbers in their poll. What’s worse, campaigns, even on a high level, often make the mistake of confusing producers and pollsters and other specialists with strategists who have the ability to put all component parts of a campaign into place.  I know of a referendum campaign in which one of the key consultants was a television producer. Naturally, the campaign strategy included heavy expenditures for television. yet the polls showed the issue to be ahead before any television was run, and the more television exposure the issue got, the lower it stood in the polls, and finally lost badly. An experienced strategist would have curtailed, or perhaps even eliminated, television and sought other means to communicate the message. In this particular campaign, the answer to the issue dropping in the polls was to run more television, a truly counterproductive move. To each his own”.

Lesson #55: Establish and maintain an immediate communications system

“There are occasions in almost every campaign when you simply must reach the candidate or the campaign manager or the media director or the television producer or the pollster or some other key person in the campaign immediately. Unfortunately, these occasions usually occur at midnight, early Sunday morning, or in the middle of a holiday weekend. One of the first projects in any campaign should be the preparation of a small directory of all the key people, with telephone numbers where they can be reached after-hours, on weekends, or other inconvenient times. Naturally, distribution of this directory should be limited to those with a decision-making position in the campaign or maybe the consultant wants it only for himself. During the campaign proper, someone in the headquarters should become communications central knowing where all the key people can be reached if needed. If the candidate is traveling, someone in his entourage should telephone communications central several times a day to report what is happening with the candidate and to find out what is going on at headquarters. The key to all this is immediacy”.

Lesson #56: Don’t panic over mistakes. They will happen.
“I’ve never been in a perfect campaign, and I doubt anyone else has, either. Mistakes will happen. Usually they aren’t serious; occasionally they are. The important thing is not to spend a lot of time crying about the mistake or criticizing the person who made it, but to decide how to handle it. In many cases, the best thing is to merely ignore it and forget about it. Human feelings are important here, too. You don’t want to ruin the morale of the campaign staff or unnecessarily embarrass or humiliate one of your good workers, because of a mistake. If the same person keeps making the sane kind of mistakes, that’s another natter, and you may have to get rid of him or her. As a devoted professional football fan, I often am astonished at how calm coaches remain when a player drops an easy pass or makes some other mistake. The coaches know it is a long season and they need these players to win. Candidates and campaign managers can learn a lot from their demeanor”.


  1. Reinier Heutink says:

    1) an elegant idea to get the blog thru the summer … 97 lessons and approx. 32 posts to go ;-)2) lesson#2: great examples, but they do not prove that the bandwagon effect doesn’t exist. a) people prefer winners over losers b) if they have alternatives within their evoked set c) assuming all other things being equal (e.g. no change in the campaign pressure). In recent elections in NL the shifts on the left side of the political landscape (PvdA, SP, GL and D66) have been strongly influenced by the bandwagon effect.

  2. Kay van de Linde says:

    Glad to see you’re enjoying these pearls of wisdom, Reinier. I do agree with you on lesson #2, although I believe Napolitan’s point is that you shouldn’t emphasize your lead as a campaign tactic.

  3. Cees Steijger says:

    Ik antwoord maar eens gewoon in het Nederlands, if you don’t mind: in #2 zit wel wat, vooral als het om meer gevestigde orde gaat, de gedachte van ‘hij zal toch wel winnen’. Echter als het gaat om een persoon als bijvoorbeeld Wilders, dan zou het wel eens zo kunnen zijn dat stemmers zch juist gesterkt voelen door politieke bravour. Voorts kun je de lessen uit andere werelddelen niet zonder meer als een transparant over de situatie in Nederland leggen. In ons land kan een protestpartij als De Tegenpartij of for that matter LPF zomaar favoriet worden. Iets wat in de VS ondenkbaar zou zijn

  4. Brengt herinneringen terug van de SI campagne 2009 in Curaçao he Kay?

  5. Kay van de Linde says:

    Ja, wij waren toen niet bang om ‘opposition territory’ in te gaan, maar een aantal niet nader genoemde mensen wel 😉

  6. Na uw lezing donderdag 3 november, ben ik me meer gaan verdiepen in campagnevoeren en persstrategie. Deze lessen zijn heel herkenbaar en worden naar mijn mening te vaak genegeerd. Hartelijk dank voor de inspirerende lezing en dit interessante artikel.