Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Spin Control: Want some campaign advice? Here’s some, starting with ‘don’t whine’

Candidate yard signs sit by the road in October along Government Way near Spokane Falls Community College.  (Colin Tiernan/The Spokesman-Review)

Campaign season usually starts in earnest after Memorial Day, when candidates get serious about raising money and filling their calendars with speeches, forums and debates, along with days of waving signs on street corners and nights of knocking on doors to meet voters.

About that time, the novice candidates who filed for office a few weeks earlier start realizing there might be more to campaigning than shaking a few hands and having people tell them how glad they are that they can vote for someone as intelligent/honorable/worthy/wonderful as him or her.

Sometimes those newbie candidates call me, because I’ve been writing about campaigns and politicians since men were walking on the moon and Spokane had a Triple-A baseball team, and ask for a little advice on how to run.

That’s a rookie mistake. The Spokesman-Review doesn’t pay me to hand out advice, unless it can fill up empty space around the ads. So every couple of years I reprise my basic rules for running for office. Here’s the 2023 version:

1. No whining. The public will cheer for winners and might sympathize with losers who give their best effort. But nobody likes a whiner. So don’t be one.

2. Now that you’re in the game, you don’t get to change the rules. Maybe you don’t like the way your district is drawn, or the fact that half of the community will be on vacation for the August primary, or a bond issue needs a 60% yes vote or any of many other rules for the election. Tough. They’re all based on laws. If you follow the rules, you might not win; if you ignore them, you’ll be a loser.

3. Keep track of who gives you money and how you spend it. This is a corollary to Rule 2, because a big chunk of the election law involves reporting where your money came from and where it went. If you don’t follow those laws, there’s a good chance your opponents, a campaign “watchdog” or the Public Disclosure Commission will notice and file a complaint. When that happens, follow Rule 1.

4. A campaign is a job interview; know something about what the job entails. If you’re running for school board, don’t spend your time complaining about potholes. If you’re running for city council, no one wants to hear your views on nuclear proliferation.

5. Have something meaningful to say and be ready to defend it. Don’t fill your speeches with platitudes like, “Children are our future,” or people will tune you out. If you say the city needs more police or more social services, be ready to say how much that will cost and where the money will come from. Hint: “Cutting waste, fraud and abuse” isn’t an answer because if that was a real solution, someone would have done it years ago.

6. Answer the question that was asked, not the one you wanted to answer. You might see members of Congress and presidential candidates pull this switcheroo during news conferences or interviews. They might get away with it because those events are usually on a tight schedule and moderators need to move on. In a local event, a reporter might ask you the same question over and over, pointing out that you haven’t really answered it. If that happens, answer the question without violating Rule 1.

7. Debates aren’t the be-all and end-all of elections. If you debated in high school and college, good for you. But that doesn’t make you any more ready for campaign debates than playing football in high school qualifies you for the NFL. Campaign debates are really more a combination of a news conference and a cage match. They are a small part of an overall campaign, and if you want to debate 10 times and your opponent only agrees to debate five times, you can’t accuse them of “ducking” debates.

8. Any day could be a slow news day. To offer a family-friendly paraphrasing of an old newsroom saying, never mess up on a slow news day. It’s a way of saying if you make a big mistake on a day when Putin invades Ukraine or the Cougars win the Rose Bowl, a story about that mistake might wind up in the back of the Northwest section near the classifieds. But if you make even a little boo-boo on a day when editors are desperate for stories to fill the paper, it’s going on Page 1. Because you never know when it’s going to be a slow news day, the best strategy is just don’t mess up.

9. When you mess up, ‘fess up. It’s impossible to run a perfect campaign, so when you’re caught, take your lumps and promise to do better. Everyone makes mistakes, so most voters can relate if you keep that promise. But if you try to blame it on staff, your opponent, Russian hackers or “fake news,” you’ll likely be seen as violating Rule 1.

10. Be sure you’re ready for the public part of public office. Some people value their privacy, but elected officials give up much of theirs. They get angry calls from constituents in the middle of the night, harangued while waiting for a latte at the coffee shop or stopped on the sidewalk by someone dying to get something off their chest. If you don’t want to deal with that, it doesn’t make you a bad person. But it could make you a bad candidate. So if you have problems – odds are good you will – remember Rule 1.

All that said, new candidates should get out there and test out those campaign wings. As you take flight, however, be careful not to smash into a windshield or get sucked into a jet engine.

More from this author