Ross G. Bates passed away last week but he left us with these pearls of wisdom. A Republican friend of mine stumbled across this blog that Ross wrote and suggested we post it. It’s great advice for anyone involved in politics, regardless of political persuasion. Printed with full credit and appreciation to Ross G. Bates.
Rules are usually ironclad declarations that should be followed at all times. The RGB Rules are different. They reflect the agnostic approach that Ross G. Bates has developed over 40 years of political consulting, strategizing and simply observing the way the world changes. He’s seen that the consultants and pundits that cling to hard-and-fast rules are quite often the ones who might have been 10 years ahead of their time – 20 years ago.
Everything works unless it doesn’t.
Everything is true, until it isn’t.
The answer to most questions in politics is “It depends”.
These are the most basic rules. Things change. What was true in 2004 isn’t necessarily true in 2012 (Just ask Mitt Romney). What works in one district won’t necessarily work in another, and what worked in one campaign doesn’t necessarily work in a different one.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore what worked in the past, but it does mean that you should look at every situation with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. When the context or the community or the candidates are different, as they most often times are, so should be the strategy and tactics.
Elections are decided by the votes of people you don’t know
The hardest lesson for many candidates to learn is that their friends are not a viable focus group and, as a wise pollster once said, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’” Friends and local activists who give candidates advice generally know the candidates well and follow the campaign avidly, neither of which apply to the average voter. Most voters understand their own personal concerns, their hopes and fears and how all those affect their day-to-day lives. But they don’t follow the minutiae of campaigns, or the “Inside Baseball” over which candidates obsess. Voters base their votes on what they care about, not what the candidates or the activists care about.
Statements that begin with “Everybody” and “Nobody” are almost always wrong.
Conventional Wisdom is more about Convention than Wisdom
The great curse of politics and punditry is the assumption that using qualifiers in your sentences is a sign of weakness. When someone “in the know” says “Everybody”, they usually mean “Everybody I Know”. Or when they say, “Nobody believes that”, they usually mean, “I don’t believe that.”
The dirty little secret of politics is that Every Election has a Winner
Consultants can always point to successful campaigns that they worked on and claim that their work was the reason for victory. But the honest ones admit that oftentimes, winning or losing is dictated by the nature of the candidates, the communities or the context – not the consultant. It’s more complicated than that. Sometimes one’s best work is done in a losing campaign. And sometimes candidates win despite their consultants.
Don’t ask people to “Do the Math”. They can’t.
One of the few useful things I learned in college (at least in the classroom) was the concept of cognitive dissonance (UCLA, Psych 10, Dr. Parducci). Cognitive dissonance occurs when people simultaneously hold two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, or values. The best current example is the majority of voters who want to balance the budget or who hate “government spending” but support increased public funds for education, health care, seniors, job creation – essentially everything on which government spends money. They resolve the dissonance by ignoring the facts, and assuming that “waste, fraud and abuse” are the causes of all government over-spending. As another wise pollster once said, “You can’t tell voters that you’ve made the tough choices when they don’t think the choices are that tough.”
All politics is NOT local.
We’ve done a lot of work in the South. Democratic candidates down there often use the Tip O’Neill quote “all politics is local” to separate themselves from the politics of liberal Democrats, like for instance, Tip O’Neill. But this fallacy isn’t confined to the South. There is a delusion that Democrats in the South or Republicans in New England can overcome the negative brand of their Party by some local connection – “They know me because of my work on the local Chamber,” “I’m an Arkansas Democrat, not a national Democrat,” etc. Sometimes these so-called local advantages work (remember: everything is true unless it isn’t), but mostly they result in a Democrat candidate receiving 44% of the vote in a Republican district instead of 40%. In today’s world both parties and the flurry of media surrounding politics have nationalized elections down to the lowest level. Branding and context trump localism almost every time.