Tying your Opponent to an Unpopular Leader

One trend we’ll see in 2014’s Senate races is Republicans in conservative leaning states attempting to tie their Democratic opponents to President Obama. It’s been the focus of Mitch McConnell’s strategy against challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Tom Cotton’s strategy against incumbent Mark Pryor in Arkansas and will likely be a focus of Republican Shelley Moore Capito’s campaign against Democrat Natalie Tennant in West Virginia.

Obama is unpopular in each of these states and the Republicans assume that if voters go to the polls thinking support for their opponent is a vote for Obama, they greatly enhance their odds of winning.  This can work for your race as well if you follow a few key guidelines.  

1. Identify WHY the unpopular leader is unpopular in your community. Simply charging that your opponent is similar to the unpopular politician won’t resonate as well as telling voters why. In the case of McConnell in Kentucky, the Majority Leader has focused specifically on Obama’s “War on Coal,” an issue dear to the heart [and pocketbook] of coal-loving Kentuckians. 

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2. Tie that unpopular issue to your opponent. It’s important to find a link that ties the two together. Simply showing a picture of the two shaking hands won’t work – voters are savvy enough to realize that a friendly relationship between two elected officials doesn’t mean they’ll vote the same way. Look at past speeches, editorial interviews, campaign websites and any other areas where your opponent might have taken a position on the unpopular issue.

Tip: Campaign websites are important. You may assume that their positions on the site are carefully scrubbed, but the dynamic aspects of a campaign can force candidates to take positions that might be inconsistent with the platform posted on the website at the start of the campaign.

3. Avoid unfounded charges or you’ll lose credibility. I once worked on a campaign against an incumbent who had a litany of mismanagement issues. We had a dozen scandals and examples of gross incompetence to choose from, but we made the mistake of going too far and stretching the truth on the “sexiest” of the scandals. It backfired. The media didn’t buy it, and chose to characterize the race as a series of mudslinging attacks from both sides, rather than focus on the real mistakes our opponent made. The media also looked skeptically on future claims we made against the opponent.

4. Talk to people in your community -- other than your strong supporters -- for feedback. Your supporters are going to agree with you. They’re going to believe whatever you say about your opponent. Members of the media and most of your undecided voters need more persuasion. So talk to folks in the community who will ask questions about your strategy and will push back. Talk to someone who needs to be convinced – because most voters will. And the journalists who cover your race always will.

Do you have examples of campaigns that did a great job of tying their opponent to an unpopular issue? Feel free to share these in the comments.

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