Assessing Election Chances

by Kenneth J. Drum

One of the purposes of this newsletter is to give officeholders, would-be candidates and political junkies some insights into campaign strategy and the political process. Since the 2012 election cycle has concluded I thought that it might be a good idea to look at some of the ways candidates and office holders can interpret the results of a past election. Whether you are an incumbent, a challenger or a candidate for an open seat in 2014 a historical perspective is necessary in every election. Like anything else there are a number of ways of looking at history. Elections are no exception. In this article we take a look at a couple of additional tools that may be used to evaluate the results of any election.

Framing the Issue

In determining the chances of victory for any office most candidates will look at things like the number of registered voters in the district, past election results, party affiliation, past turnouts, years of incumbency and the general demographics of the district’s population. All are worthwhile indicators. Once that is done a theory of how to win the election should be developed. A major part of that process is to consider why voters should vote for you.

Every candidate should attempt to “frame the issue” of their election. It’s no secret that the candidate who successfully frames the issue in a campaign, usually wins. In the presidential election of 2008 Barack Obama successfully framed the issue as “change”. John McCain offered “a secure America”. We all know how that election turned out. Yet, in 2004 George W Bush won his election by framing the issue as America would be safer with him in the White House. It was John Kerry who wanted “change”.

Political parties want to know the issues that brought voters to their decision. They will sometimes use exit polling when evaluating election results. These polls will usually yield answers as to why voters say they voted for a candidate. Exit polling along with focus groups merely validate whether a candidate correctly framed the issue of the election. The cost of exit polling and polling in general is usually prohibitive for smaller, low-budget local campaigns. County or larger city political organizations can provide this information to smaller, low-budget campaigns as a service to their members if they wish.

Relative Strength as an Evaluation Tool

One thing that you can do is use a relative strength indicator when evaluating election results for incumbents or newly elected candidates. It’s cheap and easy to do. It can tell you when a re-elected incumbent may be in trouble. It could also tell you if an incumbent or newly elected candidate will be difficult to defeat next time. Incumbents win re-election approximately 85 percent of the time. That may seem high but it’s largely due to two factors. Many incumbents run against little or no opposition thanks to the way the district map has been drawn. The second reason is incumbents have public visibility when they are in office while most challengers have to work for a living and have little ability to get media coverage until the next election.

Here’s one method of determining the relative strength of an incumbent after any election. Look for an office on the ballot that is the most likely partisan office to draw the “straight ticket” voter. In Illinois, it was the trustees of the University of Illinois. They ran as Democrats or Republicans but were practically unknown by the electorate and had to rely on their political parties to get known. If an incumbent candidate who is a member of a political party cannot pull at least the same vote as a candidate who must depend upon straight ticket votes, the incumbent should be considered weak and defeatable. Likewise if an incumbent cannot pull enough votes to match his/her party's turnout in an election they are especially weak. In order for under-performance to happen the candidate either had opposition within their own party or were unknown, and suffered a lot of under-votes. Either way it would be important to know the reason for it. In this case, past performance can be an indicator of future performance.

A Warning Sign for Incumbents

Under-performance is a warning sign for incumbents. If you cannot get the support of the members of your own party it’s going to be even tougher to get the support of independent voters. A candidate for any partisan local office can do the same evaluation. You can bring the numbers down to even the precinct level and assess the relative strength of any incumbent. Relative strength is but one indicator in a campaign tool box. It is more of an alert to incumbents rather than a predictor of future elections. As we have learned from the national political scene, a lot can happen between elections.

Factors To Consider

A candidate's chances are always better when running for an open seat. That is, where there is no one running for re-election. As previously mentioned, incumbents win 85 percent of the time. More on this topic will be discussed in a future newsletter. In general, the electorate usually does not throw someone out of office that they believe is doing a good job. Therefore, targeting offices or candidates who have low job approval ratings improve the chances of a challenger winning. However, if a challenger is unable to convince the electorate that they are a better choice the incumbent will be re-elected no matter how badly they have performed.

If a potential candidate is a member of a minority political party it will be difficult to win no matter how good a campaign the candidate runs. My advice in that situation is the candidate should consider not running at all or switch to running for a non-partisan office. Your chances are better for winning higher office later. Winning is always better than losing. In spite of the record of Abraham Lincoln, a past record of losing elections hurts a candidate's chances in future elections.

Question: Why are candidates doing so much negative campaigning these days?

There are several reasons why negative campaigning has become popular in elections. It has recently started to drift down to almost every office on the ballot. The major reason for its popularity is because it works. While the public says they hate it they also respond favorably to it. It often causes voters to dislike all of the candidates involved and imparts the feeling that they are voting for the “lesser of two evils”.

Some of the other reasons for its growth are the legal decisions that permit almost unlimited contributions by unions and corporations and the “campaign reform” law which allows the creation of so-called “527 groups”.

Every candidate should do “opposition research” on their opponents. It simply is a prudent thing to do. The decision to use negatives against an opponent is the candidate’s choice. If used, it has to be done on the basis of factual issues, like an opponent’s voting record. It should never be a personal attack.

When you as a candidate are the recipient of negative attacks it should be responded to immediately. Some candidates believe if they ignore it it will go away. That, in most cases is a mistake. If there is no response the public will tend to believe that whatever’s said is true.

There are measures candidates can take to minimize the effects of negative attacks. Most candidates don’t know how to do that. Unfortunately, a lot of a candidate’s political advice comes from campaign committees who only want to retaliate. That can cost a candidate the election.

Members of the American Association of Political Consultants must abide by a strong code of ethics. The AAPC Code of Ethics defines the ethical values and practice standards that members strive to uphold in their responsibilities for getting people elected to office. Handling negative campaign issues is better done by advisors who operate from an ethical standard.

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2013. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to:

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