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How to Challenge and Beat an Incumbent

How to Challenge and Beat an Incumbent

Anyone thinking of running against an incumbent must make a careful examination of whether it can be done. As mentioned previously incumbents win election about 85% of the time. An entrenched incumbent is even harder to beat than a more recently elected one. Here are some factors to consider that should go into the decision of whether a challenge could be successful.

Overall political environment

The first step is to consider the overall political environment. Sometimes the makeup of the electorate changes. People move in and out of a district and sometimes these demographic changes make for a change of elected representatives. Another factor is the general mood of the electorate. Generally, there are two things that should worry incumbents. One, is whether the electorate perceives that things are on the "right track". The other is whether the electorate thinks the incumbent cares about them. A deadly combination for any incumbent is that voters think government is off the track and nobody cares about them.

The electorate will have a positive or negative perception of an incumbent's job performance. Polling, focus groups and the like can reduce those perceptions to a rating. The rating indicates whether voters view the incumbent favorably or unfavorably. It is generally thought that if an incumbent has an unfavorable rating of over 40% in a district that is competitive, he/she is vulnerable to defeat. Some districts are not competitive in a general election but can often be a battleground during the primary. The above considerations apply to both types of elections.

Defining the opponent

All incumbents have voting records. A challenger must start early and research the incumbent's record. After the data is collected the challenger has to make a judgment of how he/she is going to portray the opponent. This must be done before the incumbent is allowed to define themselves. A challenger should challenge. Not only to challenge the incumbent's record but also must offer a different plan. There is really only one reason why voters are willing to throw someone out of office. The reason is they have found someone better.

Start early

The importance of starting early cannot be overstated. Many first time candidates think there is some sort of official opening of campaign season. Like baseball spring training. That is a mistake. Incumbents start running for the next election the day they are elected. They have a way of generating free publicity by just carrying out the normal duties of their office. Challengers want to get out in front of that before an incumbent can develop momentum. The incumbent will want the election to be about their issues. They will be the issues that the incumbent will feel most comfortable addressing.

Setting the agenda

The challenger should try to set the agenda. The challenger should try to force the incumbent into talking about issues where the incumbent is weak. The challenger must be able to draw a contrast and show why they should be elected. Beating an incumbent is possible with hard work and having a plan. The electorate must be shown that there is a clear difference between the candidates on issues that the challenger defines. The challenger must tell voters why they are running for office and why they are the better candidate.

QUESTION: What are some tips that a candidate for any public office should consider?

The best advice that anyone can give a candidate is to be yourself. People are able to spot a phony. It is nearly impossible to engineer political imagery on a long term basis. Therefore, don't even attempt it.The political landscape is littered with politicians who tried to be something they were not.Don't try to pad your resume or lie about yourself. The voters will see through it.

Define yourself or your opponent will do it for you.

In order to do this you have to start early. You not only have to define yourself but also your opponent. You also have to select and define the issues of the race. If you set the tone of the campaign early you will force your opponent into a defensive posture. You have to set the overall tenor of the campaign the way you want it to be. Don't fall into a trap of accepting an opponent's version of what the election is all about.

You have to have a consistent and understandable message.

The best way to make sure the voters remember you is to develop a consistent and understandable message. Consistency means that you have to stay with the message throughout the campaign. Voters hate "wafflers". It's ok to change your mind with new information on an issue. Voters will understand that. If you make a gaffe or misstatement admit it immediately and move on. It's important for any candidate not to send mixed messages to the voters. The campaign should develop its' message early and stay with it.

Develop a good "stump speech".

Every candidate should prepare a good "stump speech" that can be delivered anytime a candidate addresses a group of voters. The speech should contain who you are, why you are running for office, what you see as the important issues in the campaign and why people should vote for you. The elements of the speech should be flexible enough to allow you to fit the length of the speech within the time allotted. The worst thing to do is to drone on well past the time given to you. It says to voters that among other things you're disorganized.

A "stump speech" should be memorized and delivered without notes.

Do not try to run the campaign and be the candidate

Every candidate has to learn to delegate authority. The two most important members of the campaign team are the treasurer and the campaign manager. A candidate has to give a lot of thought who they want to appoint to these positions. The last thing a candidate needs is for their opponent or one of their supporters to file a complaint with the elections office over a failure to file adequate campaign reports or violations of other election rules.

The campaign manager and treasurer can be volunteers. Larger campaigns may want to hire a professional. No matter how hard a candidate is willing to work it is impossible to do everything that needs to be done to win an election. The idea of a grassroots campaign is to continue to widen the support for the candidate. This can only be done by involving other people. Some candidates either can't delegate authority well or are suspicious of giving anyone too much responsibility. Successful candidates know how to delegate responsibilities.

Copyright 2013. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved.

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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