This will probably be the only time I write anything about either of the two major political parties conventions. I won’t have to write about next week’s convention because what I write today will still apply next week. It will apply four years from now. It will still apply 20 years from now. It doesn’t matter which party or what candidate we are talking about either. Trust me on this – I have a long background of campaign politics behind me. When I was working campaigns, I typically worked to get challengers to incumbents elected and was pretty good at it – winning about 75% of the time. I never worked a federal campaign, but the rules still apply. Remember challengers aren’t supposed to win.
Conventions are political theater. They are scripted advertisements. The specifics may change from year to year, but the overall idea is the same. They are designed to convey ideas about the candidates. Not ideas about policy. Conventions are political party events – parties exist to get their people elected.
Every election you end up with someone who either is, or can claim the mantle of, an incumbent. And you have a challenger. Both of these types of candidates have different strategies. Incumbents do their best when there isn’t much to talk about. They do well by show casing the status quo. They do well with predictability. They like to make the campaign boring.
Challengers have a job of drawing attention. They have to do things in unorthodox ways. They have to seek out criticism. They use predictability, but in a different way. They think out what they will do and predict the response from their opponent so they can decide how they will make their next move and own their opponent. When it happens, it’s beautiful theater to watch.
The flap over a speech or any speech is a great example. Writers spend a great deal of time writing speeches. Campaigns are concerned with using the exact right words that they want to convey certain messages. The best you can hope for is that people will talk about the speech – whether they rip it apart or praise it doesn’t matter. They are talking about your speech. They are talking about your campaign. Who is controlling the message at that point? You or your opponent? You are.
The flap over a campaign logo is no different. When you spend a great deal of money on logo design, the best you can hope for is that people will notice it and comment on it – whether they rip it apart or praise it (which never happens) doesn’t matter. They are talking about your logo, not your opponent’s logo. They are talking about your campaign, not your opponent’s. Who is controlling the message at that point? You or your opponent? You are.
Both of these examples show something else important when it comes to conventions and politics in general – people are easily distracted from what is important. People would rather talk about a speech from someone who won’t be a decision maker or talk about a logo, rather than talk about policy. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, we can feel righteous indignation, showcase how smart we are for all the world to see, express our opinions, etc. on things that ultimately don’t matter. Policy is much more complicated and nuanced. Policy is rarely, if ever, a simple black and white topic. Policy requires us to move past the pick a bad guy and slam him narrative. Policy requires discussion, not tweets or 30 second sound bites. Talking about things that don’t matter also means we don’t have to worry about being wrong either. These distractions are a no-risk situation.
Conventions and campaigns are scripted. The goals of a candidate – especially one who is running against an incumbent or incumbent party is to draw attention. The goal to get your opposition to criticize you. The opposition willingly assists in doing something that actually hurts their own side. Credibility isn’t created out of thin air. It has to come from an existing source. There are two sources of credibility – an incumbent (or someone who would be considered an incumbent) and the media. People will listen to either of these sources because of their position in society. When an incumbent or the media pay attention to a challenger – whether that is to criticize or do any type of commenting on the challenger, they are handing the challenger credibility every time. It telegraphs to the voters that if I, the incumbent, am criticizing the challenger, then they are a threat to my election. People will hear the criticism and, being curious, will want to find out what the challenger said for themselves. Congratulations, you just shifted attention from your campaign onto your opponent’s campaign. Now they are listening to that person.
Criticizing your opponent means you are spending time focused on their campaign and message. Which means you aren’t focused or doing much to advance your own campaign or message. All campaigns fall for this. In a way it’s somewhat essential – but only somewhat. You have to show why your opponent is a bad option. If you are challenger, you have to show why people made a mistake before. But you also have to something for them to vote for as well. You’ll usually fail if you attack more than talk about your own campaign. If you are an incumbent, you have to show why your opponent is just too risky of an option. You have to show why the status quo is the way to go.
In the end, the campaign that controls the message usually wins. The campaign that commands the attention of the most people usually wins. The campaign that is able to get the other campaign to talk about it more than not, usually wins. The campaign that gets the other campaign to slogan as “I’m not the other candidate” usually wins.
One last prediction – I could be completely wrong on this, but we’ll see. I’m guessing that this week’s featured candidate will do something next week during the other candidate’s convention that will draw people’s attention away from the convention. It’s unconventional, just like this candidate is. I don’t know what that is, but I’m guessing it will draw criticism – and this week’s candidate will smile and be happy to get all the attention. Stay tuned. We’ll see if I’m right or if I’m just full of it.