Jeff Smith: Do As I Say, A Political Advice Column

Jeff SmithQ: I just started working full-time on my first political campaign, and I have noticed that many of our decisions are guided by polling and not by a firm belief one way or the other. It has been disheartening to see how someone I believed would be a strong leader is so easily swayed by the polls and is apparently only concerned with getting elected. Am I working for the wrong candidate, or is this what I signed up for? 
—L.D., St. Louis

The way I interpret your question, I don’t think that’s what you signed up for. But let me explain.

Nearly every candidate worth her salt—at the state legislative level and higher in most states, at this point— uses polls. But good leaders don’t use polls to figure out their positions on issues. They use polls to figure out which of their issue positions they should highlight and which they should downplay. They use polls to figure out how to talk about the issue positions they want to highlight. And they use polls to figure out which attacks merit a response. That’s being poll-savvy, which is smart—not poll-driven, which can be pathetic.

So think about whether your candidate is poll-savvy or poll-driven. And even if he is the latter, ask yourself: Is it awful for a candidate to poll voters before taking a position on an issue or issues? Is that not in some respects what representative democracy is about? Taken to an extreme, obviously, it’s troubling—no one wants to vote for a weather vane. But if a candidate doesn’t have an established position or strong feelings on an issue, I don’t see a problem with taking the pulse of the electorate before deciding.

So is this what you signed up for? No. But I think that may be more about you than it is about him.

Q: Are you following the race for New York City Council Speaker? Seems like any one of a number of people could win. When it gets down to brass tacks, how do legislators make up their minds on leadership votes? Do they vote based on the candidates’ ideology, race, gender, geographic roots or intangible leadership qualities? 
—A.M., New York CityNone of the above. In my experience, legislators’ votes in leadership races are almost always about one thing: themselves. Now, I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out.

Suppose you are the Economic Development Committee vice chair and you want to chair the committee. The current chair, whom you despise and often quietly disagree with, is running for Speaker against another member whom you like and generally agree with, and you expect the vote will be close. You will probably vote for the person you despise, because—unless power in that particular legislative body is completely centralized— the chance to chair Eco Devo is probably more alluring to you than the chance to have someone as Speaker whom you like. If power in the chamber is absolutely centralized, and if you totally trust the candidate you like to depose the current chair if she wins (a rare move in most chambers), and if you trust her to appoint you as the new chair, and if you then trust her to give you some power as chair, then you may want to vote for the person you like. As you can see, there are a lot of ifs there.

To take a somewhat simpler example, if you are a freshman Council member who first and foremost aspires to be Speaker, and one of your closest allies, also a first-term member, is running for Speaker against a second-term member whom you dislike, you’ll probably vote against your ally, because if she is elected Speaker and consolidates power, you will likely be termed out before there is another open seat race for Speaker, since you wouldn’t challenge an ally who is the sitting Speaker.

These two examples serve to make a broader point: Leadership votes are usually as much if not more about the ambitions of rank-and-file members than they are about the qualities of the aspirants.

Q: How do you make the transition from campaign grunt work to upper level work? From, say, phone banking to drafting press releases? Should one just ask to take on more? 
—S.E., Columbia, Mo.Sure, let your superiors know you’re willing to take on other tasks. But more important, do the job you have flawlessly. And be the first person to work in the morning and the last to leave at night. At some point you’ll be the only person in the office when a press release needs to go out—or at least the only person who could plausibly write it. The harried campaign manager or communications director will look at you, look around the office, look back at you, and grimace. Then she’ll tell you she’s giving you a special project and that you better not f— it up. As long as you don’t, you’ll start getting more opportunities for upper level work.

Q: The Republicans got played with this shutdown/debt ceiling negotiation, but I don’t quite get why. When I negotiate, for example, on the golf course when I’m going to bet someone and I want them to spot me strokes, I start with a position on the extreme, and then by the time we get a deal it’s usually slightly in my favor. This strategy blew up in the Republicans’ faces. Why? 
—“The Boston Whale”Because sometimes asking for too much backfires. At the start of a negotiation, your opening bid should obviously be preferable to your fallback position; you might, for instance, start off on the first tee by asking for eight to nine strokes if you’re prepared to accept five. But an outrageous opening bid—saying that you want no less than 20 strokes—could have the opposite effect, by detracting from your credibility as a negotiator and decreasing the chance that your opponent will negotiate seriously or even costing you the opportunity for a wager. That’s what happened to Ted Cruz and the House Republicans when they attempted to demand one of the only things—defunding of the president’s signature legislative accomplishment—on which there was absolutely no chance the president would compromise.


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