10 Things Losing Candidates Say

Nathan L. Gonzales August 28, 2013 · 9:52 AM EDT

It’s August of an odd-numbered year, but the 2014 cycle is heating up. That means dozens of candidates are visiting us at The Rothenberg Political Report in anticipation of the midterm elections.

Some of them will win, but most will lose. So we’ve started taking notes on some sure-fire ways that candidates end up in the latter camp. Here’s a working set of ten buzz phrases that almost always guarantee that the candidates uttering them are headed toward defeat.

1. “I’m running a grass-roots campaign.” This translates to: “I’m not going to raise any money.” Running an effective grass-roots and get-out-the-vote operation is important for a campaign, but winning a competitive House or Senate race requires multiple millions of dollars to make your case in paid advertising.

2. “The only poll that matters is the poll on Election Day.” This doesn’t guarantee defeat in the upcoming election, but it means you are losing the race at the time and have no empirical evidence to the contrary. It’s up to the candidate to change the dynamic of the race.

3. “I’m the next [insert big name politician here].” This means the campaign strategy is to emulate a previous candidate who overcame nearly impossible odds to win their own race. Whether a candidate is invoking Republican Scott P. Brown’s special election victory in Massachusetts or then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s improbably presidential run, it’s probably unlikely that the candidate using this phrase will be able to replicate those victories.

4. “I’m not going to run any negative ads.” This is one way to virtually guarantee defeat. We can argue about the definition of “negative,” but campaigns are about contrasts. And successful campaigns rarely let the opponent run unscathed and define himself or herself only on their own terms. The caveat to this is if outside groups run negative ads on behalf of a candidate. But if you’re a candidate who wins without running negative ads, then you were probably going to win anyway.

5. “I’m not going to accept PAC money.” It’s hip to reject contributions from political action committees and decry them as “special interest money.” But candidates taking this pledge probably weren’t going to get that money anyway. And if they did, they would call it “grass-roots support.” It’s possible to win without PAC money, but it usually means the campaign is supplemented with something else, such as a personal checkbook.

6. “My son is running my campaign.” Really, you can insert any family member into this quote. Unless a candidate is related to professional campaign strategist (not the pretend ones on the cable networks), this is a sign that they do not understand the task ahead of them and will be woefully unprepared if and when a tough fight arrives.

7. “Money doesn’t win elections, ideas do.” This is another sign that the candidate doesn’t want to raise money, won’t be able to raise money or doesn’t understand the importance of money in campaigns. The truth is that you can be the best candidate in the world with the best story and the best message, but if you don’t have money to communicate, no one will have any idea who you are or what you stand for — except for what your opponent says about you.

8. “I’m going to win this race the same way I did when I got elected to the state House.” Really, you could insert any state or local office, but we hear this one a lot. Campaigns strategies for lower office are rarely a template for higher office. The larger electorate, the amount of money, the federal issues and the sophistication of campaigns all require a different approach. The “yard signs win elections” mentality is a local lawn delusion.

9. “People know me.” Anecdotes kill. State legislators believe everyone knows them and knows what a good job they are doing. Usually that is just not the case, but until a candidate pays for a professional, scientific survey, their campaign is flying blind. Candidates also have to beware of the self-implemented focus groups of family and friends: “Everyone I talked to said I should run” or “I haven’t talked to anyone who is voting for my opponent.” Repeat: Anecdotes kill.

10. “My district is different.” This is related to Nos. 8 and 9, but is a common refrain. Some candidates believe that time-tested campaign tactics don’t apply in their home area. It’s usually an excuse to shun negative ads, polling and fundraising. Candidates who don’t do those three things are setting themselves up for a loss on Election Night.