It’s pretty tough to run for office. Even though I’ve never personally done it, after being involved with enough campaigns over the years, believe me, I know. So I’m sympathetic to candidates who make mistakes – if they’re legitimate ones.

It’s worth taking a moment here to parse the difference between legitimate mistakes and political stunts. Legitimate mistakes are true errors made by the candidate, ones that he or she recognizes are mistakes and tries to move beyond. Sometimes they apologize, sometimes they pretend they never happened, sometimes they simply change the subject – but they always at least make a real attempt to get beyond it, if not a true atonement. A good recent example of this was an Oklahoma congressional candidate who got bizarrely belligerent at a friend’s daughter’s sleepover: she blamed it on wine and medication, but ended up quitting the race.

A political stunt is an entirely different beast. That’s when a candidate does or says something completely outlandish or ridiculous, but not only fails to apologize, but doubles down on their absurd position. The most recent example of this is a U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri, Eric Greitens, who aired an ad depicting himself going “RINO-hunting” with camouflage-clad actors while holding a shotgun. This guy, believe it or not, was briefly the former governor of the state, and he clearly designed the ad to attract outrage, even as it carefully avoided naming any names. This is the sort of political discourse that ought to be completely unacceptable for any candidate, at any level, in either party, and yet somehow they imagine it will get them votes – and, sadly, sometimes they’re right.

The political stunt is the classic example of a campaign casting about for a purpose. Usually, they’re running in a big, multicandidate field (in our political system, that means in a primary, more often than not) and they’re simply trying to get attention by any means necessary. They don’t care if their methods are divisive, or harmful to our democracy, or encourage violent rhetoric – they’re just desperate to get votes, any votes, by any means necessary. One doesn’t see either fatal mistakes or stunts committed by disciplined campaigns, and that’s because disciplined campaigns know what they’re doing. They have a good candidate, they run a campaign based on a few distinct points, and they work hard. That’s how you get elected in this country. One finds that with successful candidates at any and all levels of politics, no matter how different they may appear: The successful candidate picks a few points (or strategies) and sticks to those.

The key here, though, is the number of points the campaign chooses to focus on. You see, it rarely works just running on one issue, no matter how concerned voters are about that particular issue. Even in today’s current political and economic climate, for instance, it wouldn’t work for a candidate to just run a campaign focused on reducing inflation. That’s not just because politicians don’t actually have that much influence over inflation, either: It wouldn’t work for any issue, regardless of the context. Single-issue campaigns are rarely, if ever, effective, and that’s for the simple reason that most voters are not single-issue voters. While they may prioritize one issue above all else, that’s not the only thing they based their votes on. If that were more common, you’d see more pro-choice Republicans or pro-gun Democrats; instead, those sorts of politicians are being increasingly relegated to the sidelines of both parties, if not eliminated entirely.

Similarly, candidates can’t run campaigns that try to address every possible issue. Candidates for local office don’t need to deal with foreign policy, and candidates for federal office don’t need to get themselves involved in every local dispute. Instead, they need to focus on the areas of policy where they can actually have an impact, rather than taking a stance on every single issue and needlessly alienating voters over issues that they can’t change.

As we head in to the general election, it’s worth noting which campaigns are disciplined, and which are not, in their approach to issues. It’s far too easy to promise voters too much or too little. When all other factors are equal, in competitive races the candidate who zeroes in on a few key issues they can actually change is the one who will succeed. The ones who don’t invariably resort to outlandish gimmicks to get attention; they shouldn’t be taken seriously by anybody.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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