The 2006 off-year election votes were tallied just a few weeks ago and already campaigns for the 2008 election are under way. In fact, it appears election campaigns are becoming a never-ending event that subjects the public to partisan campaign efforts 12 months a year, year after year.
This applies to the U.S presidency, Congress and statehouses throughout the country. Although not as bold or evident, this continuous campaigning and posturing also has become common practice at local levels of government.
Earlier this month, several of the nation's most successful, most recognized and probably highest-priced political pollsters and campaign managers were part of a summit at Kansas University's Dole Institute of Politics to dissect the 2006 elections at both the national and state levels. They discussed specific campaigns and tactics used to help their particular candidates, what they think wins elections and the pitfalls to avoid. In addition to the pollsters and campaign strategists, writers and senior editors from three major newspapers - the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Wall Street Journal - added their personal thoughts and observations to the discussion.
It was an extremely interesting two-day program, and it is hoped Dole Institute Director Bill Lacy will make it an annual event. Attendance was by invitation, and the success of the summit is sure to make it an even more attractive event in future years, both for panel members and those in the audience.
Although the pollsters and campaign managers worked for big wages in big elections and undoubtedly have clashed at times with one another, all were polite and civil in their comments. In turn, those in the audience were attentive and polite. There was no clapping, booing or ugly negative reactions so common to many programs where partisan politics are the focus.
It was a fascinating peek into the political campaign world. As is true in most any effort, no matter what the business might be, basic skills, good organization, common sense, adequate funding and paying attention to business are the keys to executing a successful political campaign.
The performance of an incumbent is critical. In fact, in many cases, incompetence is the most important factor in determining whether an officeholder is able to hold on to an elected position.
The candidate's message is important, as is the manner in which he or she targets this message. The timing of a campaign, when to engage or go after the competition, and when to spend the greatest share of precious campaign dollars all are important.
Conference panel members cautioned candidates not to believe their own spin and realize it is essential to have good mechanics along with a good message.
Perhaps the most interesting, as well as disturbing, observation about the 2006 political races was that "negative" attacks get results. In fact, trying to play the political game as it was "X" number of years ago is almost a sure way to get beat. There is little if anything "nice" about current political campaigns. It's a war, and winning is the only thing that counts.
You need a candidate who is credible; you need a well-funded warchest; you need a message; and you need to design your campaign with precision. In addition, you need as much information as you can gather about your opponent. Once the race is under way, you need to go negative - go negative early and don't let up. Don't back off or make the mistake of starting to go negative only late in the campaign when it will appear to signal a candidate is in trouble and panicking.
In many races cited by the panelists, various issues shaped the debate, but in most every contest - from the White House to a city or county election - competence is viewed as the most important factor. Most of those at the Dole Institute conference pointed to a combination of the Iraq war and competence as the major issues that hurt President Bush and those who were strong supporters of the president in congressional races. They also pointed to the fatigue factor of many in senior GOP positions. They had become careless as well as cocky.
It was the opinion of the campaign managers and pollsters that the next two years will present a severe test for Democrats. The public will judge whether the Democrats have followed through and measured up on their campaign pledges, although few Democrats had specific suggestions about what should be done about Iraq other than to get out as soon as possible. Scandal and corruption also weakened the GOP.
The Dole conference was a winner in every respect, and Lacy is to be congratulated for assembling an outstanding group of panelists.
The Dole Institute is a big winner because panelists attending the event are sure to be complimentary about their trip to Lawrence and will encourage colleagues to accept any invitation they receive to a future conference.
A warning, however: Apparently, a growing number of candidates, and certainly pollsters and campaign managers, know that "going negative" is the best way to get positive results and win elections. The chance of a victory is increased by going after a weak incumbent and then persisting with the negative message. As one Dole conference participant noted, if you want to run for office, adopt the methods of a wolf. The predator picks out the weakest of the animals he is hunting, attacks, snaps its Achilles tendon and the contest is over.
The 2008 election campaign is under way right now. Even those newly elected to a two-year term in the U.S. House already are working on how to get re-elected even though they have not yet moved into their offices. So, get ready for two years of ugly, negative campaigning. It is not a game for the weak-hearted, under-financed or overly sensitive or naive candidate. It is a war, and, unfortunately, winning is the only thing that counts, not how you play the game.