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On Momentum (III): How To Create Momentum For A Political Candidate

Jul 22, 2009
If who are thinking of running for public office -- or ran for one and had your head handed to you in basket and do not know why -- this article is for you.

Momentum in human affairs is conditioned socially, but its source is neurological -- how our brains are wired up. As such, momentum ultimately is not subject to moral or rational "correction." In fact, the pre-requisite to generating momentum is to do exactly the opposite. As the singer Sam Cooke put it, "Don't fight the feeling."

Apart from appeals to unity, how can our inborn sensitivity to momentum generate momentum for a political candidate? I add parenthetically that extrapolating from what follows for non-political purposes -- such as selling a product -- is fairly straightforward.

Let us suppose you are a Democrat candidate running for the state legislature, and that the core of your campaign will be door-to-door visits with your constituents.

You probably already know your district geographically. What you must learn is the lay of the land politically. That knowledge is best gained by sitting down and dividing up your district's precincts into three categories:

(1) Favorable precincts. Incredible events aside, simply by being a Democrat you will win them.

(2) Swing precincts. These precincts can go either way, Democrat or Republican.

(3) Unfavorable precincts. They routinely vote for Republican candidates. Barring exceptional developments, your opponent will carry them.

The first campaign tool you must have is a precinct analysis that ranks precincts according to their favorability. That ranking is based solely on past election results -- never on what some barfly says or your neighbor tells you across the backyard fence.

Precinct analysis in hand, you will build momentum by following this strategy: Build Strength On Strength, Not On Weakness. That means for your door-to-door campaign: start with your favorable precincts. After walking all of them, go to the swing precincts. Only after you have finished them, and only if time and resources permit (which they seldom do), work your unfavorable precincts.

Many candidates start by working their unfavorable areas first. They want to "get them out of the way." On hearing that your opponent is one of those candidates, I will be overjoyed; you are halfway home.

I know that he is getting cold-fish handshakes; being told to get lost (among other things); having doors slammed in his face, becoming discouraged and thinking about quitting and spending more time with his family like any "normal" person -- all that before he has touched his base of supporters in his favorable precincts who would have encouraged and energized him.

Regarding unfavorable voters in general, let us go to the heart of the matter. With enough time and resources, you could convince your opponent's campaign manager to vote for you. The problem is, the time and resources required to win that one voter could have been spent winning hundreds of swing voters. And it is the candidate who has the most votes who wins the election. There are no bonus points awarded for difficult conversions. None.

That is why, unless you are a millionaire running in a safe district and like to argue, stay out of your unfavourable areas. As far as they are concerned, there is no election.

You may be asking, "But why should I work my favourable areas first? They are going to vote for me anyway. You said so yourself."

It is true they will vote for you -- but that is all they will do unless you work them. They are already inclined your way. If they meet you, talk with you, if you show them by appearing at their homes that you respect them and will work hard for them, they will tell their friends and neighbors about you. The word will spread, and the voters in the swing areas will have heard good things about you before you land on their doorstep. Now, that is momentum.

There is a second major area where the Build Strength On Strength strategy creates momentum. To cultivate it effectively, you need a second campaign tool: an opinion poll of your district's voters.

Candidates spend a lot of time speaking to groups. Let us assume you are scheduled to appear before an association of women professionals. Let us assume a few other things:

(2) The issue of abortion is hot. What are you going to say about it?

(3) Your poll shows that 60% of the voters in your district favor the right to choose.

(4) Unlike your opponent, you favor choice.

(5) Your poll shows that among college-educated females, 75% favor choice.

What you will discover at the women's meeting is that if you come down hard in favor of choice, you will be well received, maybe even with applause and cheers. Your district as a whole favors choice by 60%; college-educated women, by 75%. That 15% difference is comparable to a fast area on a track; it is where you can pick up speed.

Putting those fast areas together one group at a time produces astounding momentum. On election night, the pundits will be, as Obama would say, "shaking their heads." Your opponent, too.

The Build Strength On Strength, Not On Weakness strategy is not always apparent. A remarkable case in point: shortly after Hillary Clinton quit the Democrat primaries, Obama announced he

"will travel to North Carolina, a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 32 years . . . From there, Obama will head to Missouri, which last voted for a Democrat for president in 1996. His first campaign swing after becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee last week was to Virginia, which last voted Democratic in 1964 . . .

Obama's aides said some states where they intend to campaign -- like Georgia, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina -- might ultimately be too . . . reliably Republican to embrace a Democrat. But the result of making an effort in such places could force McCain to spend money or send him to campaign in what should be safe ground, rather than using those resources in battleground states like Ohio."*

Obama displayed formidable momentum against Hillary Clinton. He had next to no momentum against John McCain. The truth of that statement is apparent in the Gallup daily tracking poll of likely voters. From March through September 2008, Obama and McCain stayed close, fluctuating within a narrow range. The poll conducted Sept 9-11 even showed McCain leading, 48% to 45%.

Obama did not start to pull away until October, a month before the election, when the American economy was indisputably capsizing.

Hillary Clinton's primary candidacy exposed deep divisions in the Democrat base vote. Obama needed to shore it up. His campaign did many things right. Trying to build strength on weakness against John McCain was not one of them. Obama paid the price when static equilibrium replaced dynamic momentum.

But judge for yourself. Go to the graph of the 2008 Gallup tracking polls at Gallup's website: poll/107674/gall-daily-election-2008. What do you see?

Your conclusion?


*Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny, "Obama taking fight to Republican turf," International Herald Tribune, June 9, 2008.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion."

For his website, go to Thomas Belvedere.
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