How to Handle a Broken Campaign Promise

by Nathan L. Gonzales December 2, 2014 · 10:20 AM EST

Broken campaign promises complicate a politician’s re-election effort, but they don’t have to be fatal.

This cycle, when faced with their own words from a previous campaign, two incumbents utilized different strategies in their quest for another term.

One of the most famous examples of a broken campaign promise came during the 1988 presidential race. Vice President George Bush stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention and uttered the words, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”

t was a clear and concise promise that likely helped Bush win the Oval Office. It also contributed to his re-election loss four years later. The president was saddled with his statement after he agreed to a tax increase as part of a budget agreement with congressional Democrats.

So how does a candidate avoid a similar fate?

In 2010, Republican Scott Walker promised to create 250,000 jobs in his first term as governor of Wisconsin. He won with 52 percent. But in his first four years in office, Walker fell well short of that goal. The number of jobs created was closer to 100,000. His Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, was more than happy to remind Wisconsin voters in campaign ads.

The broken promise had the potential to undo Walker’s re-election bid in a polarized and competitive state where the governor had little room for error. Finally, he decided to address the issue head on in his own television ads.

“We set big goals, we met most of them, but we’re not done yet,” Walker told voters in an October ad. “We won’t stop until everyone who wants a job can find a job.”

It helped Walker that Burke’s campaign got bogged down in a debate about whether she plagiarized her jobs plan. That charge likely muted her attack on Walker’s job record or, at a minimum, turned some of the campaign focus in a different direction. Walker ultimately won re-election with 52 percent.

This cycle in Illinois, Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos faced a similar challenge.

In 2012, Bustos challenged GOP Rep. Bobby Schilling in a redrawn 17th District and won 53 percent to 47 percent. During that campaign, she appeared to make a campaign promise regarding her congressional pay.

Here is how the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board recollected its meeting with the candidate during the race:

Bustos said then that if she were elected she would push legislation to impose a 10 percent pay cut on all members of Congress as a symbol that Congress could live with budget austerity.

An editorial board member asked her if she would take the cut on her own, or only if Congress acted. “Are you going to voluntarily give up 10 percent of your salary?” he asked.

“Yes,” Bustos said. “And I would propose that there’s a vote to cut 10 percent of the pay … for every member of Congress.”

Another board member pressed for confirmation. “You would do it regardless of how the vote turns out?”

“Yes,” she said.

But as Schilling attempted to get his job back this cycle, the Republican was more than happy to remind voters of Bustos’ stance on the subject. The Schilling campaign tried to hold her accountable through the media and in a television ad, including a woman impersonating the congresswoman’s voice in order to make the point.

Bustos handled her situation differently than Walker.

“When I was in Chicago, I said something that I shouldn’t have said, but I never said it on the campaign trail. I never made it as a promise to the people in the 17th Congressional District,” Bustos told the local Peoria Journal Star in September.

That appears to be her only reference to the broken promise as she fought for re-election. Bustos pressed on with her campaign, complete with a slate of positive and negative ads on her chosen messages.

Bustos had the luxury of riding out the storm because Schilling never had the financial resources to compete. According to a source tracking the race, the Republican’s ad attacking her on the promise had just $48,000 behind it — a very small amount for a campaign ad in a competitive race. And the National Republican Congressional Committee never came to the former congressman’s aid. Overall, Bustos outspent Schilling on television approximately $1.5 million to $195,000.

She won a second term, 55 percent to 45 percent.

What happens when a candidate or group puts significant dollars behind the attack? It is still an open question as to whether Bustos (and Illinois voters) have put the broken pledge behind them. And it’s a relevant question as the congresswoman is mentioned as a potential U.S. Senate candidate in 2016. It’s an issue that has the potential to be used against Bustos in primary and general elections, similar to what happened to President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

“I think the battle was won, but I’m not sure about the war,” one Democratic strategist said.