Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Road to World Domination, Day 2

I feel weird right now as I write this.  I don't really even know how to describe it.  I feel like someone who got to sit in on a porno shoot and realized it's nowhere near as sexy as it looks on your computer screen.  I feel like I pulled back the curtain and the great OZ is just a smoke and noise machine controlled by a bitter old man.  But then it's like, I saw how easy it was to make porn, how simple the controls for that smoke and noise machine are to operate, so while I feel like "Oh wow, I guess the great and powerful OZ isn't so great and powerful..."  I also feel like "Wait a second, I could totally run that machine and be a way better great and powerful OZ!"

I've never worked on anything this hard in my life, including this blog.

See that up there?  That's me, agonizing over my 25 word campaign statement.  My summary statement that most adequately expressed, in a brief, easy to digest, slogan format, who I am and what I will do if elected.  I thought up my premise almost immediately.  After that, it was like writing a haiku.  I had to decide what words to drop, how to say this more simply, but without losing the message I was trying to convey.  Summarizing your campaign thesis into 2 long sentences is ridiculous, almost absurd, and when I finally finished it, it was so exactly what it was supposed to be - a strong, concise shot of concentrated nothing that sticks in your brain - that I still remember it, without even having to look it up on that notepad that I scribbled my final draft on.

"I am the middle class.  Your issues are MY issues.  You are my neighbors, my family, my friends... and I will work for YOU!"

24 words.  24 words that sound powerful, concise, confident and don't say a damn thing.  I was told that mine was one of the best "25 or less statements" that was given in the workshop.  In 24 words, I was told, I established WHO I was (I am a middle class guy), I established WHAT I believe in (My neighbors, my community, the average voter) and I stated what I WILL do (I will "work for you").  How, exactly?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The point is, I said something that is simple, easy to process and that, if heard 10 times a night while watching TV, will stick in your head and create a connective identification with me as a candidate.  It's all about making connections.

I hear the camera adds 10lbs...

Yep, that's me.  Here we are, reviewing my mock television interview from the day before.  This was the part of the day today that I was dreading, absolutely dreading.  When I left that interview, I felt like I had just had the most epic meltdown ever.  I was expecting to watch the Hindenburg going down in flames.  Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised, almost shocked, when I watched my interview and not only wasn't completely disgusted with myself, but actually felt pretty good about how I did!

My weaknesses were that I "Um/Ahh'ed" a bit here and there.  It's something I was trying to be conscientious of, but would occasionally forget about when I was really trying to think of a great answer on my feet.  For reference here, I didn't plan what I was going to say in this interview for one second.  I said "Fuck it, I never prepare for shit like this, I go balls out or nothing!"  Yeah, not exactly the best strategy for effective media campaigning, but having that improvisational confidence did kind of save my ass during this interview.  I started off weak, I rocked on my feet a bit, stuttered on the first - and easiest question: "Why do you want to run for office?"  I literally froze for what seemed at the time like an eternity, but was really only about 2 or 3 seconds, before answering "Well, I've always been told, if you want to change the world, you can either sit around and wait for someone else to do it, or you can take charge and do it yourself, so I'm stepping up."  That was a good answer, I was told, because it was simple, easy for the average voter to understand and concise.  Also, I smiled a lot and made good eye contact with the reporter throughout my interview.  The reporter remarked that I had the best, consistent eye contact of all the interviewees and it made me seem very confident and comfortable in front of the camera.  Which, you could have fooled me, based on how hard I was breathing and knowing my heart was beating like a hummingbird in my chest the whole time.

However, my strength came when I started talking about my passion for politics.  When I was asked why I felt like I would be a good candidate, I started talking about my interest in the process, the fact that I was just an average guy with an above average interest in my government and - in a moment that elicited a huge laugh from the room - that I believed if "these dummies in office now can do it, then I know I can!"  The reporter laughed at that, which completely relaxed me, as getting a laugh always does in a tense situation.  I was praised for my ability to be spontaneously funny, though cautioned that calling my potential co-workers in politics "dummies" might not make me very many friends.  Hey, I was shitting bricks, I was just happy I didn't drop an F-bomb!

Then came my moment of soullessness.  The moment that was both the strongest part of my interview and the part where I just completely switched into "candidate mode".  The job of the interviewers is to not only ask us basic questions to see how we handle the slow pitches, but to also throw in little distractions - like constantly nodding, moving the mic around, etc. - to see how well we stay focused, and finally to get a little "gotcha" with some loaded questions to see if we can avoid being led into a trap or deflect a potentially negative question and stay on point.  So, I successfully avoided nodding subconsciously along with the constantly nodding reporter, I maintained eye contact, and I had concise, confident answers for the most part to the slow pitch questions.  Then, she asked me "Will your campaign accept money from special interests?"

Without hesitation, I said "I will gladly accept support from anyone who shares my views and believes in my ability to get the job done.  I would never turn anyone away who believed in what I want to do and was willing to offer their support to help me do it."

The reporter replied "By 'support' you mean money?"

I said "No, by support I mean support.  Whatever anyone wants to do, no matter how small it may seem, to help me get in office and get to work for them, it all matters, it's all equally important to me."

And just like that, I turned a question designed to set me up as a shill for special interests into an opportunity to defend the average voter from being marginalized because they didn't do enough to help my campaign to make that reporter happy.  I flat out admitted I would take money from anyone who gave it to me, only I called it support.  That way, I could easily equate it directly with the smallest effort by a potential volunteer or working class voter who just wanted to give a $20 check to my campaign.  Then, when the reporter tried to "get" me again by saying "You mean money?"  I flipped it by saying "No, I mean support" and then saying every effort, no matter how small, has an impact.  And just like that, I made the reporter look like she was the one who was trying to marginalize small, individual donors, and I was trying to recognize and praise those small donors because every little bit helps.  And I did it all in under 10 seconds.

That's when our instructor stopped the video and said "Dave, you handled that question perfectly.  You avoided falling into the trap of even saying the words 'special interest' or talking about accepting money from them, you called it support and then immediately redirected the question so that you could include the average voter as part of the group the reporter seemed to have a problem with.  You just connected and equated the average Joe to big money special interest seamlessly, and you did it in 3 sentences.  Great job!"

I felt a strange mix of pride and dirty pleasure.  If I heard myself say that, I would know I was totally full of shit.  I would know that I was just giving a bullshit answer, completely designed to convince the average, middle class voter that we're all on the same team, even when I know we're not.  But, most people don't think like I do.  In fact, I learned, most people don't think at all.

See, most people don't elect a candidate based on the issues, their agenda or even party affiliation.  Most people elect a candidate based simply on whether or not they like him.  Whether he seems approachable and funny, someone you'd want to meet and maybe have a beer with.  People want to elect guys who are confident, charismatic and relate-able.  They don't want long-winded answers that use a lot of big words, because most people won't remember half of what you said.  Most people will tune you out after 30 seconds if you haven't grabbed their attention.  People want short, simple, easy to remember answers.  They want easily-digestible sound bytes, something they can repeat at the water cooler at work the next day and sound smart and informed.

This is why Bush was so popular and why, even with sagging approval ratings, he was able to defeat John Kerry in his re-election bid.  Bush gave simple answers, extremely simple answers.  He said the same things over and over and over.  Comedians mocked it, but it worked.  It worked because most people have to hear something 10 times before it sinks in to their memory, and Bush pounded those sloganized talking points in until they got stuck in there.  "Terrorists hate us for our freedom!"  "9/11 changed everything!"  "Kerry's a flip-flopper!"  He said them so much you still remember them right now.  Another thing he did was he stuck to his issues and never diverted.  Every time he got on mic, he talked about the war against terror, the "evil doers", and he talked about growing the economy.  Nothing else.

On the other hand, Kerry had a plethora of issues he wanted to discuss.  He had long, complex criticisms of the war in Iraq, talked of outsourcing to "Afghani warlords" and went into great detail about where, and how, the Bush Doctrine was failing.  The problem with that was, people tuned him out after 30 seconds of talking without saying anything they could quote.  Worse yet, he set Bush up to retort with yet another simple slogan: "He says 'wrong war, wrong time!' How can you claim to know the right strategy to fight this war when you don't even support it?"  Of course, the worst mistake Kerry made was ignoring the Swiftboat attack ads.  His own staff was pleading with him to get out in front of it and set the record straight, but he refused, saying that it was a red herring and that voters wouldn't be fooled by it.

Kerry failed because he overestimated the intelligence of the average voter.  He believed voters cared about real answers to issues, instead of canned, empty sound bytes.  He believed voters would do their homework, instead of believing the guy with the most memorable slogans.  He believed his record would speak for itself, and instead Bush spoke for his record.  And that is how a guy who used his father's connections to avoid serving in active combat duty won a wartime re-election campaign against a decorated war hero.  Because Bush was the guy you wanted to have a beer with, and Kerry was the guy who would quote drunk driving statistics and ask for your keys immediately after you finished that beer.

And that, folks, is how elections are won and lost.  Scratch that, that's just how elections are lost.  Because, the most important fact that I learned from this workshop is that the majority of elections aren't won, they're lost.  Meaning, most candidates who get the most votes in an election didn't do it because they won those votes, they got them because their opponent lost them.  Thanks to our decades-old, entrenched two-party system, elections are no longer about "may the better man win", they're about "may the worse man lose."  You don't have to know how to win an election to be a candidate, you just have to know how not to lose it.

There's still so much more information still bouncing around in my head, so much more strategy and techniques and secrets to campaign success.  I feel like I'm letting air out of an extremely over-inflated balloon inside my skull every time I type a bunch of this stuff out.  I've still only scratched the tip of the iceberg.  I would love to tell you some of the really blunt, fact-of-the-matter statistics about voters and the election process, but most of you would probably argue with me about it, you'd say "Well, that's not how *I* am."  Except, yes, it is.  They've been using the same system to run campaigns successfully since 1975, and they've only had to update the information to reflect changes in media technology and campaign finance laws, and that's pretty much it.  When you cast your vote one way or the other, you are the culmination of years and years of statistical surveys, number-crunching, focus group after focus group, study upon study and tried and proven strategy designed specifically to get you to vote exactly the way you did.  What caused you to ultimately decide whether to vote for one guy or the other was that candidates ability to stick to the game plan with fewer screw-ups.  If you knew the actual amount of people who vote for a candidate only based on party affiliation, you'd be shocked.  If you knew the actual amount of people who vote for a candidate only based on how likable he was and not over a single issue at all, you'd be even more shocked.

Or, maybe you wouldn't.

Or, maybe you stopped reading this halfway through the first paragraph and are checking to see if "Teen Mom" is on your DVR right now.

"Politics is a tough game, and it's not for everyone.  It's an invasion of privacy, for you and for your family, friends and anyone close to you.  It's not fair, it's not nice.  You need a thick skin.  You need to be willing to work long hours, get very little sleep, deal with a tremendous amount of pressure and stress, and do it all without ever losing your energy or that smile.  Once you start down that road, you have to be committed to see it through.  Nobody likes a quitter, and nobody likes a loser.  You get 2 or 3 shots at most to win a big election, after that you're done.  You gotta have a fire in your belly, and either you got it or you don't.  We can teach you the strategy, we can teach you how to play the game and win, but you have to ask yourself: 'Am I ready to go down this road?  Am I prepared to have my privacy, my families privacy, invaded?  Am I ready to be torn apart in the press by my opponent?  Can I handle all of this without losing my focus, without panicking, without showing fear, hesitation or a second of weakness?  Can I stick to my issues and make less mistakes than my opponent has by the time those voters pull that lever?  If the answer to all of that is yes, then welcome to the world of political candidacy."

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