Against the Grain

The Five Stages of Political Grief

Here are the telltale signs that prove a campaign is losing, badly.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks during an Aug, 9 news conference in Springfield, Ill.
AP Photo/John O'Connor
Sept. 18, 2018, 12:45 p.m.

With the likelihood of a sizable Democratic wave approaching, at-risk campaigns are starting to show the public how nervous they are about the midterm elections. As a political analyst, I’m a firm believer in following candidates’ actions—rather than campaign spin—in assessing the trajectory of an individual race.

These are the five biggest warning signs to determine if a candidate is heading to defeat.

1. Apologizing in a campaign ad.

This is one of the most desperate actions a campaign can take. So far this cycle, there hasn’t been anyone apologizing for misconduct or unpopular votes. Scandal-plagued GOP Reps. Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California remain on a ballot despite legal problems that could land them in prison. Perhaps in the Trump era of rampant tribalism, candidates don’t feel the need to admit mistakes.

But there’s a long, recent history of wounded candidates trying to improve their standing by saying that they're sorry—almost always unsuccessfully. One of the most recent apology ads came from failed Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin, who said that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy. His 2012 campaign quickly went up with an ad, where he faces the camera and says: “Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize.”

Sometimes personal scandal forces a candidate to beg for forgiveness. Former Rep. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania looked doomed after reports emerged that he choked his mistress. “I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife, Carol, and our daughters. As a family, we worked through this,” Sherwood said in the ad.

Both members of Congress lost—badly—in their campaigns. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t mean voters will accept the apology.

2. Admitting you’re going to change.

Elected officials who don’t want to apologize take the next-closest step: explaining how they’ll govern differently.

Embattled Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is a case study of this crisis strategy. Last week, he pledged to listen more to differing views instead of forging through with unpopular reforms. “I’m not perfect, but I’ve grown and I’m still committed to doing what’s right for Illinois. I humbly ask for another four years to finish the job we started—to save our state,” Rauner said.

It’s no coincidence that Rauner, a well-financed candidate, is polling at a dismal 30 percent after barely winning his primary in March. Barring a miracle, he’s headed to defeat against Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

Another almost-apology came from Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, who cast an unpopular vote for Obamacare in 2010, and tried to make amends for his mistake. “I know I've disappointed you with a vote here or there. But you can always count on the fact that I do what I do for the right reason — for the people of North Dakota,” Pomeroy said in his closing ad. He lost by double-digits.

3. Claiming all politics is still local.

The reality is that Tip O’Neill’s maxim no longer applies: All local politics is now national. Members of Congress who focus on district-wide accomplishments will be running against a wave of national attacks that resonate more with constituents.

The first ad from Minnesota GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen focused on his support for environmental protections around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. While the spot is designed to show his independence from President Trump, focusing on such a localized issue isn’t likely to convince voters that he’ll be a check on the president on weightier policies.

Especially during a political wave, voters care a lot more about national issues—like health care—over local priorities. A New York Times/Siena survey shows Paulsen down 9 points against Democrat Dean Phillips, 51 to 42 percent, a precarious place for any incumbent to be in.

4. Denying the polling.

Nathan L. Gonzales of Inside Politics wrote a memorable column about how candidates speak when polls show them losing. “The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day,” is the well-worn cliché that losing campaigns utilize. Florida gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam used the line a couple weeks before getting crushed by Rep. Ron DeSantis in the state’s GOP primary.

A good rule of thumb: A well-known incumbent should be polling near 50 percent to have a good chance of winning. Even members of Congress with a lead in polls—but winning less than a majority—are in serious trouble.

5. Anger about lack of outside support.

When candidates don’t have a likely path to victory, allied outside groups usually cut off their financial support. That doesn’t make the underdogs happy, but it’s usually best not to express such anger publicly.

That’s not the case with Democratic prosecutor Andrew Janz, hoping to unseat Rep. Devin Nunes in a deeply conservative California seat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, armed with polls showing Janz trailing badly, haven’t invested any money in the race. “I question their competency,” Janz told Politico in a biting counterattack.

It’s hard enough to be a likely loser. It’s even worse when you look like a sore loser.

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