Strategies that can take a candidate from campaign trail to political office
With a year to go until 2022 elections, it seemed fitting to talk with Austin political consultant Matt Brownfield. A graduate of Patrick Henry College, Brownfield started offering advice in 2009 and then merged his firm into Murphy Nasica & Associates. In this edited and tightened interview, Brownfield looks at the ABCs of campaigning.
When surveys of the general public ask folks whether they trust journalists, the positive response is usually in the single digits. What about campaign consultants? Many people probably have either too skulky a view—that we’re all conniving in some way—or too glamorous a view of the job.
How many candidates ask, “What do I have to believe to get elected?” Most of the candidates we’ve worked with have at least one issue they’re passionate about. We help them convey the depth of knowledge they have about that topic. One candidate we worked with was strongly pro-life. We helped him communicate that passion but ratchet down the level of intensity so people wouldn’t find it disconcerting.
What else do candidates need to learn? When you’re running for office, you have to engage with many topics you may not know anything about. People bring issues to you, and the education happens as you go. We’ve worked with a lot of people who are business owners and want to run for office. They know a lot about their business, but what about public education or school finance reform or oil and gas policy or water rights? We help candidates think through what their principles are and how to apply them in this set of circumstances.
How do you connect the candidate with a platform? One of our candidates has been pushing for vocational education. This makes sense to voters: He’s a person who never went to college, has been very successful, and runs a business that requires a lot of folks to use skilled labor. People realize this guy would know something about that. We worked for a candidate who was an active police officer here in Austin, which has had lots of discussion about defunding the police. He could speak with credibility about the defunding’s impact.
What do candidates need to communicate? Voters need to think you’re honest, likable, and share their values. Any good messaging campaign about a candidate focuses on those three things. You need at least one or two.
How important is the particular makeup of a district? Some candidates enter races thinking they can break through enormous partisan disadvantages if they have the right message. Early on in my career I stopped spending a ton of time working for those candidates, not because they aren’t doing something noble, but because I really can’t help them. We’re not going to change that much in a district.
How often have you told rich candidates, “You’ll be wasting your money”? Several times recently. You look at the candidate, the district they’re trying to run in, the set of circumstances, and the challenges. We always ask candidates to answer four questions: Why do you want to do this? How will this affect your family and business? What are your immediate roadblocks? By that I mean: Are you running where you have a big partisan disadvantage? Against a popular incumbent of your own party?
What’s the fourth? If it’s not their own money, how will they raise it? I have not met a candidate excellent at fundraising from the beginning. I don’t know that I’d trust a candidate who immediately knew how to raise money. Many candidates really struggle asking. It’s the reverse Christmas card list. You write out names of all your friends and think about who will give you money.
What’s the order of priorities in starting a campaign? Good candidates come first. Does a person have a compelling reason to run, and a story or background with which voters will identify? We like working with people who have done a lot in education. That matters to a ton of voters and gives immediate credibility. Funding comes second. One Texas candidate spent $8 million of her own money and still lost. The more money she spent, the more voters realized how unserious she was. She probably would have lost by less if she had spent $1 million. We did not work for her.
How outgoing does a candidate have to be? You have to be willing to put yourself out there. We were once mystified by a candidate who didn’t do well. At the end of the campaign his brother told us the candidate was agoraphobic. He wanted to run, but he had a tough time being around people. Most politicians are extroverts. Campaigns do not reward people who need a lot of time to sit alone and think. Introverts, be ready to be tired all the time.
Have a story about extrovert success? In a swing district for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, the candidate we ran was a fascinating, disciplined person who had run more than 60 Iron Man challenges. He had also run for office and lost seven times. This time, he decided to do things differently. He committed to knock on doors and talk to voters directly. He ended up knocking on 18,000 doors and winning 59 percent of the vote in the runoff.
Local campaigns bring lots of direct mail, which we mostly throw away. Bad investment? Direct mail still works in campaigns, especially with younger people. Younger people don’t get a lot of mail. Their bills are online. They don’t write letters. Millennials and other digital natives tend to read mail and ignore online ads. Older voters have a harder time engaging in digital content in a way that allows them to ignore the advertising. It’s the reverse of what you would think.
In what ways have social media replaced reporters? Many rural communities have either lost their daily newspaper or seen it become a weekly. Facebook is the newspaper. Any good campaign will try to use social media to advertise and promote content. So social media becomes a political communications apparatus. A newspaper photographer used to show up at the event or debate. Now forums often don’t have any members of the press attending. The campaign records the forum, takes pictures, and posts online. A staff member writes a summary: Create your own press!
William Tecumseh Sherman compared war to hell. Some say the same about campaigning. If you run, you need to be committed to winning. It’s not something you do to bring awareness to an issue. It’s not something you do because you’re bored or you think it might be fun. You run to be in a position to make the decisions and make the law. It’s one of the toughest things a person can do. That’s why we like working with military people. Running for office isn’t the most stressful thing they’ve had to do.
How much do the ends justify the means? Our current political environment encourages candidates to dehumanize their opponents. You’re encouraged to win at all costs and never evaluate the means. If you’ve managed to retain your conscience, it can seem like an unfair fight because you’re attacked and are unwilling to respond in kind. You have to continue fighting.
What movies and TV shows have gotten your job right? The show Veep represents well what it’s like to work in politics on a daily basis. Day-to-day politics is about solving small, short-term problems that are serious but not world-changing. An old movie, The Candidate, accurately depicts the betrayal of political operatives. [Warning: Veep is rated TV-MA for strong language.]
Many millennials grew up with The West Wing and got their sense of politics from that. I watched and enjoyed it. It’s an idealized portrayal of politics, and witty but not very funny. Veep has realistic comedy. There’s some absurdity in what we do: You need a sense of humor to survive. Very few people involved in politics are boring if they’ve been successful. If they’re good candidates, they’ve done some interesting things in their lives already.
Should Christians who want to hold onto their principles get politically involved? Yes, this is a space where we should go in and engage fully. It’s good to want to represent your neighbors and to want to do good.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.