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Magazine / Common Sense

How to Win a Race

Can’t make heads or tails of this volatile political environment? Here are five steps to success for candidates.

With constituents: Rep. Tim Walz(AP Photo/The Mankato Free Press, John Cross)

photo of Matthew  Dowd
April 28, 2011

Dear candidates in the 2012 elections:

It was 48 years ago this past week that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in the midst of racial unrest in the United States. King wrote: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The excerpt struck me as timely when I stayed overnight recently in a simple house in an old residential neighborhood in Portland, Ore., where vegetable gardens and compost piles dot the yard, a goat stands guard in the back, ducks wander throughout the property, homegrown brown eggs fill a bowl in the kitchen, and egg cartons with dirt and small plants are scattered on the countertops. The room I stayed in was empty except for a thin mattress on the floor. There were no lamps, chairs, headboard, end table, or pictures on the wall—it was a room as simple as any jail cell in Birmingham, although I could at least come and go freely.


The young couple who own this modest house live upstairs with their young child and try to make ends meet by renting out rooms to visitors. With little money, they are attempting to make their odd version of a bed and breakfast help them withstand a time of economic hardship. What they have created seems to have more in common with a commune than with any inn I had stayed in before. But it got me to thinking about what you, as political candidates, should be paying attention to if you want to win the hearts and minds of American voters.

As I lay in the barren room, I decided I would spell out some ways to successfully campaign at a time when nearly all polling shows President Obama’s approval rating at an all-time low and overall congressional disapproval at 77 percent (Gallup). It’s also a time when most citizens equally distrust Democratic and Republican officeholders.

So consider this my “Letter From an Urban Farmhouse,” with five steps to success in campaigns (and perhaps life).

1) Find solutions that emphasize voters’ desire for self-sufficiency as well as community. As King says in his letter, we are all interconnected, and what affects one affects us all. Don’t talk about what the federal government can do, but about what we can do in our  communities. The Portland couple are building their own version of a small community with no help or assistance from the federal government; instead, they are relying only on the power of the Internet and word of mouth, as well as their own hard work and community support.

2) Default to the simple, closer-to-home path, and don’t keep coming up with convoluted, complex, multidimensional faraway solutions to our problems. If three steps can get the job done, don’t devise five steps. If the local government is better able to meet the needs of citizens, step out of the way and make it more efficient for that to happen. Furthermore, “simple” doesn’t mean talking in absolutes; stop castigating the other party as evil or dangerous.

3) Most of us know the 80/20 rule in business, so how about one for politics? Spend 80 percent of the time out there listening and asking questions, and 20 percent talking and proposing answers. Most voters need to know first and foremost that you understand what they are going through, what’s going on in their lives, and what their hopes and fears are. Voters follow much more what leaders do than what they say. As St. Francis of Assisi was reported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.”

4) Authenticity and honesty are key. It’s OK to make a mistake as long as you own up to it and try to do better. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response if you don’t have all the answers. Voters don’t have all the answers, and neither should you. It actually might just make you human in voters’ eyes. Searching for the truth is a big asset. Voters are looking for a connection on values, not policy prescriptions. And they can handle the truth, even if it’s about the federal budget and may involve sacrifice. The reason voters think they can have it all at times is because that’s what you keep telling them.

5) Finally, when you travel around the country, get out among real folks. Don’t stay in the bubble of your staff, entourage, die-hard supporters, secure caravans, and hotel rooms. Get out and sit on a porch or stay in a home with regular people. Think less about photo-ops and drop-bys, and more about genuine Kodak moments and real connections.

These five steps won’t guarantee that you will win, and they don’t require you to sleep on a mattress on the floor. But maybe they will help you understand better that we are all tied “to a single garment of destiny” and, in doing so, help you fulfill your own destiny as you run for office, be it for town hall or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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