Good Question-Can Campaigns Recover from Mistakes?

This question and discussion began at AIAW regarding a Janet Oleszek video kerfluffle and then bounced over to Bryan Scrafford’s blog, where the Hoot video became the locus and focus of a broader analysis, which runs somewhere from a mea culpa to a dismisal of the event as a non-event. Rather than highjack a comment section, it seemed fair to offer my thoughts over here.

Before I continue, I should note that the nickname for Ms. Oleszek is one based in fairness and observation. Having taken to calling her opponent Ken Cuccinelli “the Cooch”, fair play requirements-not to mention balanced attempts at wit-meant she had to have a moniker. She got tagged with “Hoot” because her campaign does these little things that cause me to hoot or giggle or chuckle. An example-putting a campaign video that was not in prime time in the public section of YouTube, then yanking it after it had been discovered and clucked about…which leads us back to the question of the day.

Campaign mistakes are like wounds. Wounds diminish the ability of a body to survive by draining it of life sustaining elements-like blood-which leads to other systemic breakdowns. Mistakes do the same things for campaigns. Mistakes diminish the ability of a campaign to survive by draining it of credibility and energy, which then impacts fundraising, volunteer support, public approval, etc.

Also like wounds, mistakes come in a variety of forms. Sometimes even major wounds do not prevent the body from functioning…just ask the Black Knight in Monthy Pythons Holy Grail:

Sometimes, it really is only a flesh wound!  Sometimes, like the untreated wound of Albert Sydney Johnston at Shiloh, a bleeding wound is enough to kill.

But I suggest that seldom is a mistake, big or small, enough to kill a campaign.  I suggest that from a high view analysis that mistakes seldom kill a campaign (or even a career).  The response does, and even then there are degrees. There seem to three types of mistakes, and two of them can be cauterized:

a)  If an incident is completely contrary to the image or record of a candidate has built, it can completely wreck a campaign or a career:

This is what happened in 2004 with Ed Shrock, and more recently with Larry Craig. This is not to say his bathroom antics were OK, but for many politicos a quick apology and accepting some type of treatment would have kept them in play and at least let him finish his term in office…and if he stays in office, there is always the possibility of a recovery.

However, Senator Craig is a “traditional family values” kind of guy.  Combined with pleading guilty to a criminal charge, the incident not only blasted the image he built but also ticked off his fellow senators creating a critical mass where no one wants him to stay in office.

b) If it is a Big mistake followed by blundering responses:

If you do “The Kennedy”, and confess immediately to some unacceptable action, take steps to show contrition and move on, then typically folks will give you a second chance.

We saw it in Virginia with Chuck Robb in the run-up to the 1994 election. Buffetted by rumors and stories about Tai Collins and other unacceptable behaviors, Robb came out and apologized with his wife by his side. Polling showed his numbers immediately improved. Now they did not improve enough to give him a landslide win in 1994, but they firmed up and kept him in a position to win-which he ultimately did.

We saw something different this past year, and it can be summarized in only one word:

You know the word, and the word is “denial”.  Fooled you, didn’t I?

Allen’s campaign staff should have known  within 48 hours they had a problem…and if George Allen had gone on television with John Warner in one of his late campaign two minute spots and apologized then I bet the wound would have been cauterized and we would have moved on.  Better yet, call Webb HQ and offered to come apologize personally to Mr. Siddarth and the entire Webb staff…wound cauterized.

Instead, the Allen campaign denied there was a problem, denied it could be an issue, and denied anything out of the ordinary needed to be done…and the wound bled for weeks.

It was not the mistake that killed the campaign-it was the reaction.  The same thing has happened over and over again.  Pride goes before a fall, and denial after a mistake destroys recovery.

c) If the small mistakes are perceived as a pattern of something voters don’t respond to:

Perhaps a candidate is less than professional, often not prepared, regularly late, shows no improvement as a speaker…taken by themselves these problems do not derail a campaign.  It is often not enough to get in the public mind as indicative of something bigger.  However, taken in concert they create the picture of a candidate and a campaign that is not serious, that is not ready, and is not what the voters want representing them.  I suggest that this happens to the bulk of candidates for statehouse and local offices.  They make little errors, and word gets around.  The more the errors occur, the more folks talk until the district is part echo chamber and part amplifier and a campaign is blown out of the water.

So, I would agree with Mr. Scrafford that in great part

“Just because a campaign makes a mistake…doesn’t [mean] that the race is over…it simply comes down to how big the mistake is and how the campaign responds.”

But that bald statement belies how complex creating the response can be.  A campaign has to be able to recognize what kind of mistake has been made and respond appropriately, it has to agree on the best way to proceed, it has to have the resources to respond, and must choose the appropriate manner and medium in which to respond. 

I bet every campaign that experiences that blow up moment, from George Allen back to James G. Blaine in the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” incident in 1884 and back through history, thought in the moment they handled the situation correctly…although history proved them wrong. Is posting the wrong video a fatal error? Not in this reality…but follow it up with additional errors that make the candidate and the campaign look squirrelly and the voters will notice, no matter how good the response to each individual matter. But, I guess that takes us into the world of macro-response and micro-response, and that is not on my agenda today!

So we shall see in the months ahead whether The Cooch and Hoot and their campaigning brethren across the Commonwealth, while they are pushing their agendas and positions, are skilled enough to avoid mistakes or to react effectively when they occur…because the truth is that campaigns can always recover from mistakes-it is the reaction to the mistake that kills campaigns.


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