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

Jeff SmithQ: I’m considering running for office in 2014, but here is my dilemma: I am not sure I want to put myself out there. My father and grandfather were both elected officials, and my father has encouraged me to run. I think I could win based largely on name ID, but having to knock on doors just is not my cup of tea. Do you think I could win without doing that?
Definitely no initials or location!

A few thoughts.

First, you have to f—ing want it. If you don’t want it, voters sense it. And you’ll probably lose.

That said, knowing nothing about what office you’d run for or who your opponent(s) might be, or how hard you’d work (or they’d work), yes, I think you could win. I’m sure you’ve considered this, but your family probably has residual name recognition and, especially if your father or grandfather is alive, they likely retain fundraising connections that could benefit you. As a general rule I abhor dynasty candidates since so few compare to their parents (with some notable exceptions, such as Jeb Bush or the impressive Udall brothers), but the fact is that most Americans vote like they shop, and when given the choice between 7-Up and Super-Up, they usually buy 7-Up.

Second, if you dread knocking on doors, you probably shouldn’t get into politics. It is, of course, a people business, and if you don’t like people, you’re going to be pretty miserable most of the time. New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai once profiled someone who reminds me of you, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, whose father, John, was a legendary U.S. senator. During Linc’s first campaign, for delegate to the state’s constitutional convention, he went to his home turf to knock on doors. According to Bai, “He sat there for 20 minutes, holding a stack of palm cards with his picture on them, trying to work up the courage to get out of the car.”

Now, he’s turned into a pretty successful pol, first reaching the U.S. Senate and, after a 2006 loss, recovering to win an unusual independent bid for governor four years later. Still, if you’ll read the profile, you’ll see that he doesn’t actually appear to enjoy the lifestyle—and these days, his numbers are in the tank. So, before doing it to please your family, take a hard look at what you’re getting into. I usually found it amusing when people slammed doors in my face. If you’re more sensitive, you’re gonna struggle, at least at first. And remember—some introverted dynasty candidates (think Al Gore) seem much happier now that they’re out of the game.

Q: Hey, Jeff, definitely not complaining, but why have you been writing about sex so much lately?

Because I’m married, and my wife is pregnant.

Q: The NRA actually doesn’t spend that much money compared with their influence, so where does their power really come from?

Their passion. Pundits constantly cite the fact that 85 percent of people are for gun control measure X, or 83 percent for gun control measure Y, to bolster their case that the House should pass X or the Senate should pass Y. Unfortunately, those numbers are irrelevant if only 5 percent of that 85 percent (about 4 percent in all) actually vote based on the issue, while 60 percent of the 15 percent against gun control (9 percent in all) actually vote on the issue. This is the difference between an issue’s salience (the proportion of people who tell a pollster they care about it) and its intensity (the proportion of people actually willing to call a legislator, visit her office, knock on doors for/against her and vote based solely on the issue). The NRA has been extremely effective at stoking paranoia—witness the huge spike in gun sales after the president’s re-election. And their power comes from the fact that, even in the wake of theNewtowntragedy and despite seemingly overwhelming public opposition to their positions, the percentage of pro-gun single-issue voters exceeds the percentage of pro–gun-control single-issue voters.

Q: Based on the postmortems, the 2004 election was all about “microtargeting.” 2008 was about online fundraising. 2012 was about data analytics. What will 2016 be about?
New York City

You’re right about what the postmortems said. But really, all of those phenomena are united by a single thread: Campaigns are leveraging technology to recreate the politics of yesteryear, when block captains knew everybody on their block and didn’t need Big Data or anyone else to tell them how their neighbors voted and what they cared about. As famed scholar Dick Fenno (whom I’ve quoted before) wrote, at its core, retail politics is about a candidate communicating to voters: “I’m one of you.” And so, while the technology will continue to evolve, I suspect 2016 will extend this theme: In a society where people are increasingly accustomed to depersonalizing call centers, social media and mass emails, campaigns will continue seeking innovative ways to personalize their outreach by saying, “I’m just like you.”

Q: When I decided to work on the presidential campaign I thought this would be a glamorous lifestyle. But it really wasn’t—at all. I could tell that you need to work three to four election cycles to get to a position where there’s any glamour at all. That means like six to eight more years, and I don’t really want to wait that long. What would you advise me to do? Isn’t there some shortcut I could take?

Yes. Move to L.A. and try to get on a reality show.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from


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