What is your election versus your opponent about? The 1980 Presidential campaign was about a sagging U.S. economy and the Iran hostage crisis. That wasn't what Jimmy Carter wanted it to be about.
The 1992 Presidential campaign was about the economy, which definitely wasn't what George H. W. Bush wanted it to be about.
This month, a number of close Senatorial campaigns were about how well President Obama was leading the country. That's not what Democrats in red states wanted their races to be about.
So, what will your race be about? Is it about what you want it to be about or is it about what your opponent wants it to be about? Candidates don't always realize it, but they have control over what the election is about. Candidates can call local press coving the race and tell them what they think the race is about. They can send direct mail pieces to voters telling them what the election is about. They can steer the conversation during a debate back to what they want the campaign to be about.
Bill Clinton and his team were masters at this. Read this transcript of a 'Meet The Press' interview between Tim Russert and Clinton adviser Paul Begala from 1998. Russert wanted to know what the relationship between Clinton and Monica Lewisky was. That question is the last thing Begala wanted to discuss.
RUSSERT: A very simple question: What was the relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?
BEGALA: Well, what it is, it's a subject of an ongoing investigation. Because of that, people like me are not free to insert ourselves into that investigation, nor are those conducting the investigation free to leak. And what we have seen is an ongoing campaign of leaks and lies that, frankly, I think have a political ax to grind and are worthy of an investigation. Members of Congress have called for this. Thoughtful commentators have called for it. And I think it's time to investigate the investigators to see where these leaks are coming from.
RUSSERT: Why won't the president of the United States come forward and [explain what happened]:
BEGALA: Because it is the subject of an investigation that itself has dragged its heels for four years now. And, frankly, if we had confidence that the independent counsel was truly independent, that the investigation was truly fair, you might have a different story. But let me give you a couple of specifics. You know this: Ken Starr makes over $1 million a year from tobacco money, some of the most bitter political opponents the president has had. At least four witnesses have come forward and said that Starr and his office have tried to intimidate them into changing their testimony and testifying falsely...so there are a lot of questions about this investigation, and sound lawyers have laid down the law for the president and said, "You cannot, in the is atmosphere, with this kind of partisan investigation with the power unchecked that this prosecutor has, subject yourself to this.
RUSSERT: But this is the White House defense: Change the subject.
BEGALA: No, no. It is the subject. (source: Buck Up, Suck Up; Carville, Begala 2002)
That's how you make the campaign about what you want it to be about. That's how you frame the debate. Russert wanted the conversation to be about Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Begala insisted the conversation was about Ken Starr.
Had the debate in 1998 simply been about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, there's a good chance Clinton would have been thrown out of office. But Clinton's team added the credibility of Ken Starr to the debate, muddying the waters enough to limit outrage aimed at their boss.
It's important to make your election about what you want it to be about. In Kentucky this year, Alison Lundergan Grimes wanted her attempt to unseat Mitch McConnell to be about Alison's Kentucky values. McConnell insisted the race was about Alison's support for Barack Obama - and McConnell won (here's how).
Whoever wins this central tug of war - "what is this election about?" - generally wins the election. You want to fight the battle on your home turf. For Bill Clinton, his home turf was a discussion about Ken Starr. For Mitch McConnell, his home turf was a discussion about Barack Obama.
So before you begin campaigning, decide what you want the race to be about. For tips on how to do it, send me an email and we can talk about your campaign.
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