Something fascinating happened in South Carolina last month. In this new age of political populism, in a deep red South Carolina district where Donald Trump won nearly 60% of the vote, a Democrat almost won a congressional special election. What’s more, the Democrat in question was a former top executive at Goldman Sachs.
How did that happen?
As is always the case in special elections, there are many reasons ranging from Trump’s low approval to the significant base of African American voters in the district. But one has been largely overlooked: The Democratic candidate, Archie Parnell, never tried to be something he wasn’t. He embraced the fact that he was a wonky, nerdy tax guy — and his campaign told a story about how that experience could help him deliver tax reforms important to voters in his district. Those voters believed in his tax expertise because it was real, clearly connected to his life.
And his near-victory, in a place where embarrassing defeat should have been the rule, spells out a critical lesson. Having spent the better part of a decade working with candidates at all levels, my best advice for candidates in 2018 is: Be yourself.
A debate has been raging among Democratic operatives and pundits about what type of candidates we should run in the midterms. Some think our candidates should be populist champions of single-payer health care. Some counter with moderates who can appeal to centrists and independents. Some argue for nonpolitical outsiders who can’t be called “establishment.” Others suggest technocrats — wonky experts who understand a detailed economic platform. And some want veterans who can expose the President’s willful ignorance of military and national security issues.
Everyone has a theory. Everyone is right. And everyone is wrong.
The idea that any one-size-fits-all candidate background or platform will succeed in the midterms fundamentally misinterprets what American voters want. They don’t think in labels when it comes to who they want to represent them in Congress — especially today, when voters in both major parties are more distrustful of political institutions and politicians than at any time in our nation’s history.
These days, voters start with a presumption of dishonesty and self-interested motivation from their candidates, and the burden is on the candidates to disprove it. More than that, voters need to believe not just what the candidate wants to do but why they are doing it. To overcome this deficit, there is no silver-bullet policy prescription or position on an ideological scale. Voters have to believe in the individual candidate — the person themselves — whoever they are.
The premium is on candidates who embrace their own backgrounds, giving voters a reason to believe they are who they say they are, and they’ll do what they say they will — candidates who are authentically themselves. That type of authenticity will even allow voters to support a candidate whom they don’t agree with all the time.
Sure, it would be great to run political outsiders — people steeped in progressive values and committed to resisting Trump. But those candidates shouldn’t run ads championing their commitment to cutting spending or eliminating government waste. The message does not match their experience.
Successful small-business owners make great candidates, too. They’ve balanced the books, made payroll and demonstrated that they understand fiscal responsibility. But those candidates shouldn’t tout themselves as resistance heroes and progressive champions whose first priority is a more expansive government. No one thinks that is who they are or what they stand for.
A candidate who has been a state senator for 15 years — one who has amassed an impressive record of legislative accomplishments on health care or tax policy — shouldn’t try to run as a political outsider. It can be okay to be a career politician. Find a message that works within that identity: being a career politician with a record of accomplishment proves that this candidate can actually accomplish things that matter to the voters in that district. Voters will believe that, too.
I’m not saying campaigns shouldn’t listen to consultants or conduct polls. Candidates should still discern which of their campaign issues are also top priorities for voters, what messages are most compelling and how to talk about them. The best campaign advisers know how to tell the story of the candidate.
But if a candidate who’s never thought about fiscal responsibility thinks she should focus on that issue because polling indicates it is a priority for voters, she should stop right there. If a candidate wants to pretend to be a political outsider after 20 years in office because he thinks that’s what the people want, he’s making a mistake.
In the end, there is no magic wand to create the type of candidate Democrats need to win in 2018 — no perfect biography or policy agenda that will unlock the keys to those 24 districts needed to take control of Congress away from Trump. The surest path to victory in this uncertain political climate lies within an adapted version of Shakespeare’s wise words: to thine own self, and to thine voters, be true.
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