Avoiding mudslinging preemptively
October 10, 2012 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Campaign tactics: how can my dad, a first-time candidate, preempt last-minute mud-slinging?

I've been working with my father, who is a first-time candidate in a state-level race. His area is not particularly friendly to Democrats, and has been represented by a Republican for some time. Nevertheless, Dem candidates have run and come close in the past, only to be targeted with vicious, very effective character assassination mailings days before the election.

In my dad's case, we're pretty sure there's nothing personal out there that the other side could throw at him (e.g. unpaid child support, World of Warcraft accounts, etc.), but we wouldn't be surprised if he's targeted with some more issues-based red meat (e.g. he'll take your guns, he's for killing babies).

What can he do to plan for and counteract this kind of a mailing? For example, would it help to send out an advance mailing that mentions what's happened in the past and responds to whatever charges we guess they might throw at us?

Some background: this is a rural election. There's no TV coverage to speak of, so most of the campaigning is done door-to-door, with yard signs, and with mailings. In the past, these mailers have been mailed to hit voters' mailboxes a day or so before the general election, so if one hits this year, he won't have the time to put together and mail a response thereafter. Money is limited on both sides, but moreso for us than them.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is your dad supported more because of his platform, character, experience or connections? Are you more concerned with losing Democratic supporters or converted Republican votes? Will the accusations be based on your Dad's stated positions (i.e. he would take guns or is very pro-choice) or just based on speculation? How much of a difference have these mailings made in the past vs. current straw polling?
posted by michaelh at 1:42 PM on October 10, 2012

Attack first, and attack viciously. The best defense is a good offense.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:43 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Get working on your vicious attack mailer for early November delivery. A prominent political communicator once told me that the first thing you should do when your candidate is attacked is attack back.
posted by Amplify at 1:48 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there a local paper that he could write a letter to? Or have a friend write a letter to - "Bob Smith is a stand-up guy and has been a valuable member of this community for thirty years" kind of thing?
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:49 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

When he's meeting with voters, point out the pattern. "You may have noticed that in the past few elections, my opponent has sent out vicious mailers right before election day. Well, they do that because they're scared. Scared of new ideas. And scared of losing - it's a close race. Make sure you get out and vote, and together let's send a message, and send the scaredy-cats home." Or something like that.
posted by troika at 1:49 PM on October 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

Obviously, it's better if you can have a proxy do the attacking, but if you're in a rural area with a sparse media landscape, there won't be many opportunities for that.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:52 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need something to release the week of the election. It doesn't need to be something negative about the opponent, but it needs to be something that will help you hold a news cycle. Either you need a mailer of your own or some event that will garner attention and chatter. Or you can release an attack. With there being no money, I'd imagine your opposition research budget is nil, but it sounds like you're going up against an incumbent so even a mailer about his/her voting history could be effective.

Also, he's your dad so you may not know what there is to know about him. He might not share with you that he was pulled over for a DUI in his twenties and got off with a warning or whatever is around, but someone needs to know all of it because if the other guys do opposition research and dig something personal up, you can't spend a day figuring out what to do. You get ahead of any bad story now by controlling it. And if your Dad is awesome and there is nothing, even better.
posted by GilvearSt at 2:12 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Send him door to door in significant neighborhoods the week before the election. That way people will meet him and like him, making them more likely to brush off any last minute attacks (and the attacks will look like sour grapes compared with the jovial likable person he presumably is).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:32 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding GilvearSt. Do you know what your vulnerabilities are, either from a personal or policy perspective? If not, try and figure them out before this attack lands. The worst thing that can happen is to be surprised by a line of attack.
posted by fancypants at 2:35 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's almost harder since your dad doesn't have anything specific you know for certain they're going to attack him on (and I agree with the above- make SURE you know). It would be weird to get a mailer that says "Dad is not a child beater!" from your campaign if the opposition doesn't actually send one out of it's own says "Dad is an unrepentant child beater! And he'll beat your kids too!". You just end up introducing doubt about something that didn't exist.

Maybe the thing to do is come out with your own Attack Mailer - make it seem like you're really going to Attack The Opposition in the way that they will and have framed their own, but instead use it to "Attack their Record!" one last time and reinforce the exact changes your dad would make. Then if they do come out with some personal attack mailer it looks petty and stupid next to yours which is also heavily attacking but more serious and issues focused.
posted by marylynn at 2:38 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Coupla things:

1) What to do does kind of depend on your individual race. If you send me a message, I'll give you more specific advice.

2) It doesn't sound like there's much of a "news cycle," so getting solid support reinforced early should help. A lot of districts already have early voting — doing GOTV for that will do more than an attack mailer.

3) Phone calls are more effective in the main than mailers or emails.

4) If you do attack, a couple general guidelines are to attack the opponent's strengths and that the goal is reducing their enthusiasm, rather than winning votes.

5) If you can, I might put out a mailer that simply ties your opponent to "Big Money" or some other scare tactic and tells people that your opponent is in the pocket of people who will try to smear your dad.

6) Get out the vote is so important that I'm mentioning it twice. Do your ground work now, get your dad to meet as many people as possible and have the volunteers ready to help get people to polls. If you have any proxies or surrogates, get them out there vouching for your dad's character and priming people against any attacks.
posted by klangklangston at 2:42 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

"What can he do to plan for and counteract this kind of a mailing?"

Go door to door and meet a lot of voters so people already know and like him. Also, where is the state party? County party? There should be at least some advice available to candidates, even in areas where they have little chance.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:52 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've helped at a low level on a lot of local campaigns. This is a state campaign, so it feels like a local race in the types of media that are used, but it sounds like the big guns in the state party are willing to throw money at the "problem," so that puts a different spin on it.

If it's a small enough district that it really is the local community, the friends and neighbors, if you will, who are going to decide the vote, I think I'd prepare a mailing to hit soon before the election that doesn't try to guess on negative issues, but rather inoculates the local voters, perhaps on these fronts:

- endorsement from some prominent local person or thing who is not too controversial? A popular past mayor, or the current mayor if they're willing, or even a prominent business person. Some chambers of commerce endorse in races, some don't. If yours does, chambers are usually respected by business people, AKA republicans, so that would tend to inoculate against business group criticism (assuming his idealogical stances haven't been, well, perceivable as anti-business). A quote from a local newspaper endorsement?
That sort of thing.
- the tactic that comes to mind is "us against them." Let the local community decide this race, not "big city party bosses." Needs work on the wording, but that's the idea.
- don't mention the negatives, but endorsements, visuals, or statements that reinforce the positives against them, or at least mitigate them. I know it's corny, but in rural politics a picture of a guy at a turkey shoot will at least demonstrate that he's not a vegan tree-hugger, even if he's not aligned with the NRA*

It occurs to me that some digging might leak some of the plans. I'm not suggesting Watergate in reverse, but if your dad is well connected enough in the civic/political world, perhaps there's someone close enough to the other side who might have some knowledge about what their plans are. People loooovvve to talk...

It might also be helpful, if you can afford it, to also do a mailing like this a week or two EARLIER, to at least make them have to rethink their attack piece on the fly. But you still need a piece ready for the week of the election.

*if your father is, in fact, against hunting, no offense, and this isn't the right thing to do in that case. I'm just giving an example.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:20 PM on October 10, 2012

Probably what will happen is they will send out a generic attack based on general party platforms. We have actually gone thru this ourselves (when my hubby ran for office a few years back.) Smart of you to prepare.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:22 PM on October 10, 2012

You can't avoid attacks because it is an integral part of a quality campaign. Plan on sending out a contrast mailer of your own. What does your oppo research say? Go positive first, define yourself before the opponent has a chance to, then close by going for the jugular. Staying positive is for losers.

Your campaign mail firm will help.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 7:27 PM on October 10, 2012

Please don't send a pre-emptive "they might attack us" mailer. It'll just make your father look paranoid and whiny, even if it's true.

You just need to have a really solid plan for what you're going to do with these last 27 days. These plan should involve field (the doorknocking is great!), earned media, events, and as much paid media (including direct mail) as you can afford. Nail down as much of the plan now as you can, so that you have the bandwidth to respond to any attacks that come up at the last minute.

Also, don't catastrophize too much about these potential mailers. The thing is, there's a lot of controversy in the campaign world about how effective mail actually is. I wouldn't assume that's why past candidates have lost. If it's a R-leaning district, then it's just going to be really hard for Dems to win, especially since they are probably often running against incumbents, who almost always win re-election.

That's not to say you shouldn't do mail, but that you should be smart about how you use it. Figure out what your campaign's best messaging is and stick with that religiously.
posted by lunasol at 2:07 PM on October 11, 2012

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