How to Run a Losing Campaign: A Big Loser Speaks Out
by Jon Dykstra
Experts abound on how to win campaigns but there are very few willing to volunteer information on how to lose one. As I have never won a campaign, and have lost a good number, I am a veritable expert on losing campaigns. Let me share my expertise.
Why Run a Losing Campaign?
The obvious question is: “Why?” Campaigns are expensive, time consuming and often stressful, so why would anyone run a campaign they know they are going to lose?
REASON 1: POSITIONING
It’s the very rare politician that gets elected his very first time out. You may have to lose a couple of elections before you get your name out there and finally put yourself in a position to win. Even Abraham Lincoln lost his first election.
REASON 2: NO ALTERNATIVE
In the provincial election four years ago, my riding had no pro-life candidates. I was faced with either not voting or convincing someone else to run. But democracy is a gift from God, one of many “talents” he has entrusted to us to use properly. I don’t believe we are allowed to bury this talent by not voting. That left me with trying to find someone to run. I immediately thought of my dad since he had told me, “if a Christian can’t, in good conscience, vote for anyone, then he has an obligation to run himself.” Unfortunately he was too busy with his business. He did, however, point out that I didn’t have any prior obligations preventing me from running. He even lent me one of his sports coats for the forums!
REASON 3: COMMUNICATING
Very few elected officials have any real power. Backbenchers vote the way their party leaders tell them to and even cabinet ministers are only there at the whim of their boss. But while they don’t have any real power, they do have a soapbox. Their higher profile means that more people will listen to what they have to say on the issues.
During an election, all the candidates are given a soapbox. For however long the campaign lasts each candidate has a higher profile that they can use to tell the masses why abortion is wrong, why parents should be in control of their children’s education, and why gay marriage is destructive. It is an opportunity to be heard in a very big and bold way, and it only comes around every four years or so.
How To Do It
Regardless of the reason you’re campaigning, you will want to communicate your message effectively. That means learning how to present that message in a number of different mediums – pamphlets, press releases, videos, and, of course, speeches. There are a few general rules, but the key through all of these is really experimentation and learning from your not so successful ventures. Keep trying until something succeeds.
During one campaign I had the funds to put out a full color, high gloss pamphlet. The cover featured a stunning picture of a South American tree frog. Inside we compared the current moral climate with the frog soup parable. (A frog is placed in a pot of slowly heating water. He never notices how hot the water is getting because the temperature change is so gradual. Eventually the clueless frog gets cooked to death.) It was clever and beautiful but it cost 50 cents per pamphlet.
During the same campaign we handed out a photo-copied information sheet on our stand against “gay rights.” We titled the sheet “Black and White” and predicted that gay marriage and gay adoption were on their way, and that even pedophilia would eventually be protected if we didn’t do something to stop it now. It was blunt and ugly and cost a little over 2 cents per pamphlet.
Guess which one got read?
The 2-cent pamphlet spawned a media storm. We were on the TV and radio, and in all the newspapers. Dozens of news articles were written about the contents of the pamphlet, and newspaper columnists wrote dozens more defending and attacking us.
The 50-cent pamphlet received no attention at all.
It was that content that was key in this case. We had controversial beliefs (as all Christians do nowadays) but in the “Black and White” pamphlet we stated them fearlessly, clearly and loudly. Instead of shying away from controversy like most politicians, we courted it. We became a target, but by doing so we also became a focal point.
Some naysayers might point out that we didn’t win the election, but we did manage to spread our message across the entire province. We communicated.
Mass produced videos cost a little over $2 each. It’s a very expensive trick to try but if you have the money you might want to experiment with them. We had 500 tapes of our party leader explaining policy and we were going to distribute them to every second house in a couple of polls. That way, after the election, we would be able to evaluate those polls and see if we had done any better in them.
Unfortunately we started handing them out to a few churches and, before we realized it, they were all gone. This is an example of an experiment gone bad. We couldn’t evaluate them so we have no idea how effective videos are.
It was the first time in 20 years the Social Credit party had an office in the city, which we thought was newsworthy. At the same time the press had ignored all our previous press releases so we were getting a little bitter. Instead of a normal title, like “SOCRED OFFICE OPENS” we decided to title our press release: “If the press doesn’t acknowledge our office does it still exist?” It was sarcastic and a little caustic, but it was also different, and it did get us some attention.
We’ve found the most effective releases are only two or three paragraphs long, and include an attention-grabbing headline in big bold type.
In two earlier campaign forums the PC candidate used the same speech, so in the third I decided to ambush him. The Liberal candidate agreed to switch places with me so I could speak right before the PC. For ten minutes I talked about how politicians didn’t lie as often as people thought they did. “The truth is politicians don’t break promises. In fact they try not to make promises at all. Instead they’ll make vague statements like ‘Healthcare is a top priority” or “Seniors are an important concern’ or, ‘Children are our future.’” I concluded my speech with three straightforward promises.
Then it was the PC’s turn. “Healthcare is a top priority,” he began. By the time he got around to, “Seniors are an important concern,” his own people were snickering at him.
Vague speeches are dishonest speeches and should be exposed as such. A Christian politician has to speak clearly and specifically whenever possible. This too, will set him off from the other candidates and make his message stand out.
Lawn signs, at a cost of $2-$3 each, might seem expensive but they can give you a big bang for your buck. During my second campaign, we got our 400 signs (which cost us about $1000) put up within a couple days of the election’s start. That meant that for over a week we were the only party with signs out, and voters couldn’t help but notice us. We didn’t have very many of our signs on people’s lawns, but instead put them on boulevards and street corners.
It also pays to spend the extra ten cents or so for the extra sturdy stakes. Early on in the campaign many of signs were kicked down (the other candidates weren’t having this problem), but then we stopped stapling them onto stakes and instead started screwing the signs on with washers. The screws combined with the extra heavy stakes meant that while people continued to try and knock our signs down, they often weren’t able to do so.
My brother recruited most of the volunteers for our campaigns. He is a “proud beggar” who will beg and argue and push and plead because he believes in what we are doing. Every campaign needs someone like him.
And every campaign needs dozens of volunteers as well. All the planning, speeches, press releases, and brochures are useless if your campaign doesn’t have enough volunteers. Fortunately, as a church-going Christian you are surrounded by hundreds of like-minded brothers and sisters that you can ask for help. That’s an awesome resource, and one more reason why Christians really can have a louder voice in politics. We have each other!
(This article was first published in the June 2000 Reformed Perspective)
Jon Dykstra is a big loser, having lost his last three political campaigns. He plans on losing another some time in the coming spring.