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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Seven Rules of Politics

Forty days out in what has seemed like a presidential election campaign that might never end, things are about to get really interesting. The TV ads are flying – at least in Ohio – the debates loom, the charges fly and the pundits spout. But what does it all mean?

Today no analysis – historic or otherwise – just seven rules collected over 35 years of reporting on politics, working on two statewide campaigns and trying to understand the great ebb and flow of American politics. Rules to live by, if you will, in assessing the home stretch of the 2012 campaign.

1) All politics is local. That was the famous mantra of the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill and it is as true as the math in the Electoral College. After all the months and all the money the presidential race comes down to no more than nine states where the smartest candidates will run for the next few weeks like they’re trying to win a county commission race. You better remember the name of the mayor of Muscatine and who runs that diner in New Hampshire you visited for 11 minutes four years ago. The locals are watching, because it is all local.

2) Beware the candidate who is first to say “the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.” That candidate is surely running behind. Polls come and polls go but, as the savvy Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame stresses, the trends go on and on. Day after day, week after week of trends mean something in polling and a steady trend is a predictor of that only poll that counts on Election Day.

The “only poll that counts” corollary is the old “our internal polls tell a different story” talking point. Of course, no campaign releases internal polling so this old chestnut gets dusted off ever election cycle. This line of analysis has been pursued by Presidents Goldwater, Mondale, Kerry, Dukakis, Dole and McCain, among others.

3) When a candidate says, as Barack Obama did at the Democratic Convention, “this election is not about me” you can take it to the bank that the election is about him. Elections always come down to a choice between two people. It’s always about the candidates, and even more about the candidate if he has a cause, and it is always about the incumbent.

4) When a candidate or campaign says, “we will have adequate resources to compete” you can be assured they won’t. If you have enough money in politics, you keep quiet and spend it – wisely if you can. If you don’t have the cash you talk about being able to compete, which is shorthand to the donors that they need to write another check because the opponent is killing you in the money race.

5) The candidate who is forced to talk about the inner workings of his/her campaign is almost always losing. If precious earned media time is being given over to batting down stories about this highly paid consultant not getting along with that highly paid consultant it is almost always a bad sign. The term “re-tool” in the same sentence with campaign is never good.

Good and successful campaigns are like the great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s old four corner offense – everyone has a role, they play their role, they stay out of each other’s way and at the right moment someone scores an easy layup. In successful campaigns the coach doesn’t have to explain anything other than were the victory party will be held.

6) Debates can re-set the race. Well, not really. In only a tiny number of occasions in modern political history have debates had a re-set quality. More often debates reinforce, in a fresh and direct way, what voters already know or sense to be true. Ronald Reagan’s famous line to Jimmy Carter – “there you go again” – delivered with a tilt of the head and a smile helped cement the impression that the aging actor could more than hold his own with the former nuclear engineer.

John Kennedy’s youthful vigor contrasted sharply with Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and JFK used the debates in 1960, as Reagan did in 1980, to show that he could stand on the same stage and speak intelligently with a more experienced opponent. But these were more moments of assurance than game changers.

Lloyd Bentsen had perhaps the most famous debate line ever – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – which he delivered to an over matched, deer in the headlights looking Dan Quayle in 1988. Quayle is little remembered for anything today, but he was elected vice president with the first Bush even after showing poorly in his debate.

One time a debate did matter – again reinforcing a pre-existing impression – was when President Gerald Ford made the debate boo-boo of all time by saying then-Communist Poland wasn’t under Soviet domination. If not a complete game changer, Ford’s comment in 1976 was reinforcement for many voters that the nice guy Ford was just a bit of a klutz.

7) You can’t beat something with nothing. Or the Cecil Andrus corollary to that statement: You can’t win a horse race with a dog.

In politics, as with most things, plans are better than platitudes. Details are better than dodges. A well constructed 10-point plan to accomplish thus-in-such is almost always better than vague statements that sound like they could have been cribbed from a Hallmark greeting card. Even given the often shallow, craven state of our political discourse, most voters want to vote “for” something. You gotta give them some substance.

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