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[Comments] (1) Unwavering Public Confidence: OK, I gotta actually start writing these. This one's going to say a lot of what I want to say about politics, though some of it in less detail than I could give. I'm going to talk about confidence. This, or the ability to project it, is the most important personality trait for someone working for a political campaign. Even when everything is going all to hell you must remain confident that it will all go right and you will prevail. You must never admit weakness, lest that acknowledged weakness begin to grow without bound.

I can think of a couple reasons for this, though both are based in speculation. The personal reason is that a lot of people have careers in politics; it's usually not a one-shot deal like it was for me. I think expressing any doubt in the sureness of your cause hurts your chances for being enlisted in future causes. Nobody likes a loser, but in politics you can't help occasionally being a loser. What you can help is predicting your own impending loserdom.

The other reason is that if you ever admit weakness, that becomes the media story about your campaign. Why are you staying in the race if you're not going to act like you've got it locked up? It's like the emperor admitting he's naked! Endless fun for the press.

I'm almost positive about this, but I never actually saw it happen, because--stay with me here--nobody ever admits any weakness in an election. Even poor Joe Lieberman, in the Democratic primaries, went around smiling and talking about having the "Joementum", long after it had become clear that "Joementum", while real, was a new phenomenon totally unrelated to "momentum" (am I the only person in the world who still makes "Joementum" jokes?). It was embarrassing to watch, but he had to do it or get out of the race.

I imagine what I'd do with the gift of a political opponent admitting, in a speech to the three undecided voters in an evenly divided state, that his triumph (thanks to the unswerving support of the good people of that state) was less than a sure thing. I'm a lousy speechwriter but I'd say something like "My opponent said recently that this election is going to be close, heh heh. Well, maybe he's a little too far from what's happening on the ground with Michigan voters. I've been talking to people all around this state and I know what's coming. The only thing close about this election is how close [opponent's name] will be to the unemployment line when it's all over! [Note: use non-unemployment joke if you are the incumbent.] We're going to win, because the voters of Michigan are going to show [campaign-specific boilerplate about what you're going to show whom]!" You could be forty points behind and give this speech and press coverage of it would studiously avoid the fact that you were obviously deluding yourself or lying. You would only get weird looks if you gave this speech outside of Michigan.

I am not good at seeming confident even when I actually am. My instinct as an engineer is to plan for the worst case and bring up enough possible pitfalls to fill an SEC filing. So once the Clark campaign started losing primaries I became even more glad that my position didn't require me to interact with the public beyond fielding tech support questions.

Hey, sometimes this charade works. Look at John Kerry. In December 2003 John Kerry's campaign was a joke. He had to mortgage his house to keep going.[0] His staff was putting out feelers (privately, of course!) trying to defect to us. But now all my friends from Clark are working for Kerry and he's a swing state away from the presidency. Why? Well, because the Kerry campaign had a really good ground operation in Iowa and got a snowball effect from it. But the thing that kept everything from falling apart again was the unwavering public confidence.

One of the things I've learned is that politics is made of two different professions: campaigning and governing. I have never experienced the governing firsthand, but a lot of the people who work in campaigning are auditioning for a job in governing--not just the candidates.

A lot of the problems with politics are in my opinion problems with confusing the two professions. People move to the governing profession and don't learn or don't want to learn the new skill set. An example is governing with the goal of getting re-elected instead of serving your constituents.

An opposite mistake is this belief that acting like you've already won will help you win. Unwavering public confidence is a prerequisite to success in politics, but it does not bring success. In my opinion we made the mistake of thinking otherwise, and this was a big reason why we didn't turn the Clark campaign around; coincidentally I also think it's a big reason why George W. Bush has been a lousy president.

[0] Funny (I hope) side note. Jordan and I and I don't know who else spent some dinner time making up silly fundraising graphics for the various candidates. (These would be web page graphics that show how much money the website visitors have raised; see for instance the one on Daily Kos; left-hand corner, scroll down). The Kerry one we came up with was "pay off the mortgage on John Kerry's house". The Lieberman one had a cup of coffee with "fill the cup of Joe". His fundraising goal was $2.50 for coffee. Man, I could do a whole entry just making fun of Joe Lieberman.

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Posted by Kristofer Straub at Fri Oct 29 2004 02:10

I wanted to say something like "Joementum is a property of [some amalgam of Joe and matter]" but the original was "inertia."

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