Mark Curtis's blog

“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- September 28, 2014

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(Providence, Rhode Island) – Here is something most people don’t know about me. I have helped to manage three successful political campaigns. These all occurred when I was on hiatus from working as a journalist, so there was no conflict of interest. Those experiences - as well as my years as a political reporter – have given me some insight into how to build a winning campaign. Since we are at the height of political season, I thought we could “brunch” on that this week:

“Symbolism Matters” – One of my candidates was a retired fire chief. While he dressed in a suit and tie for his press photos and TV commercial, I asked him if he still had his old fire chief’s helmet. He seemed puzzled when I told him to just tuck it under his arm in all the photos and video. Why? Because a white fire chief’s helmet with gold clusters screams, “Leadership!” Plus, everyone loves firefighters. This was a tough race, because he was a rookie politician running against incumbents. It worked; he won!

“Endorsements – Do they Work?” – The answer is,
"Not so much – but it depends." Look, a Republican may get endorsed by five key business interests or politically- conservative groups, while a Democrat may get endorsed by three labor unions and a couple of liberal-leaning groups. So it’s a standoff. If someone offers to endorse your candidate, ask three key questions: 1) How much money will their group contribute? 2) How much “people power” can they provide in terms of volunteers working phone banks, knocking on doors, or helping drive voters to the polls on Election Day? and 3) What is their group expecting in return for all this help? The bottom line: Endorsements must have teeth; otherwise, they are just empty promises.

“Look Like You’re Already on Board” – A town council candidate I was working with had never held elective office before. But she was endorsed by two of the sitting council members. So, in her video, I had her walk down the street in between the two of them – and stroll right past the town hall. We did not say or imply she was on the council, but the video did elevate her stature by showing her with two very popular, long-time councilors. Endorsements don’t always work, but in this case they did since she won!

“New Media vs. Old Media” – The bottom line anymore is you must do both! The first questions I ask people who tell me they are thinking of running for office are, “Have you started a Facebook page? Do you have a website? What’s your Twitter handle?” The problem is that many in the "New Media" generation scoff at traditional radio, TV and newspaper. You can’t. People over 60 vote in huge percentages and love “Old Media!” People under 30 vote in low percentages, but love New Media – almost to the exclusion of traditional news outlets. So, you have to do both! If you exclude one, you’re dead.

“Make it Understandable” – There is an old acronym, K.I.S.S., which stand for “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” I have never bought into that, feeling it was condescending to voters. People are a lot more politically savvy than that. Bumper stickers don’t win campaigns! But, what I do say is, "Keep your messages understandable and digestible." I once covered a candidate who offered a “40-Point Plan” to turn the economy around. That’s way too much! In truth, offer a plan that maybe has 3 or 4 key cornerstones. Otherwise, people get overwhelmed by information. Think of it like serving a meal. You wouldn’t try to eat forty items from a buffet at once, so just put 3 or 4 of your favorites on the plate at any given moment in time.

“Make News” – I once worked with a very shy politician. He did not like the cameras and the media spotlight at all, but he was a key committee member on issues affecting senior citizens. So we held a public hearing on healthcare fraud schemes that targeted the elderly. Victims came and spoke about horrendous scams that had victimized them, and my candidate (who was up for reelection) spoke about proposed legislation that might help. Clearly, the spotlight was on the victims and not my boss; but the press clamored to interview the candidate anyway. We maximized our free publicity, while making our camera-shy boss look like a hero!

“The Intangibles” – I’ve talked about a lot of things that are within your control, or at least within your sphere of influence. Manage and massage the things you can influence, but realize there are things almost completely out of your control. The weather – for example – can affect voter turnout, but there’s not much you can do to control it. Voter mood, such as apathy or anger, is also something that’s hard to combat. In 1992, the economy slid into a recession, so even after a triumphant victory in the first Persian Gulf War, George H.W. Bush was voted out of office. And twice in modern history, a Democratic President has had his “hat handed to him” in a Congressional midterm election, after trying to tinker with the nation’s healthcare system - President Clinton in 1994, and President Obama in 2010. An angry public just can’t be managed by a political campaign.

“Fire in the Belly!” – One intangible you cannot manage as a chief-of-staff, campaign director, or communications operative, is how much passion your candidate can put into the election effort. It is often referred to as how much a candidate has the “fire in the belly!” I can’t precisely define it, but it’s a real phenomenon. Ronald Reagan had it in 1980, when people questioned whether he was too old for the job; Bill Clinton had it in 1992, when people said there was no way he could defeat the highest rated President in modern history; and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had it in 2008, when they waged the most titan primary battle ever. When I was a youth soccer coach about 15 years ago, the girls had a pre-game chant: “You’ve got to want it to win it; and we want it more!” It was about passion and desire and determination and overcoming odds. It can work on the soccer field; and it can work on the political chessboard!

What do you think it takes to win in politics? How does someone get your vote? Let us know by clicking the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2014, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo Courtesy: ABC News.com

“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- September 21, 2014

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(Providence, Rhode Island) -- I love politics. I’ve been a “political junkie” ever since watching the President Johnson-Barry Goldwater election coverage in 1964. At the same time, I realize politics is not everyone’s “cup of tea.” I know that not everyone has the same passion for it as I have, but the extent to which people are completely disconnected has always troubled me. I often wonder "Why this disconnect?" So, let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Where Is Everyone?” – Voter turnout has always disappointed me. For all the media coverage and office water-cooler debates, I am always stunned at how few people actually vote. Take, for example, our recent primary election in Rhode Island. The turnout was a paltry 21 percent, even though there were contested primaries in both parties for Governor, for Lieutenant Governor, and for one of the seats in the U.S. House. If you listened to talk radio, the election was all that people were chatting about, but when push came to shove, only 1 in 5 voters cast a ballot.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid!” – The famed mantra from Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 upstart campaign still rings true in 2014. By a wide margin, the economy remains the top issue in federal, state and local elections. But I suspect the inability of politicians – in both parties – to successfully deal with that issue just adds to voter frustration and apathy. People want jobs with benefits for themselves and for their kids coming out of college – if they even can afford college. People want to own homes, to have health care, and to have a decent retirement. Many feel that the “American Dream” eludes them because of government inaction or interference.

“Media Matters” – I wonder how much of this voter apathy is due to the tenor of the media culture nowadays. In my lifetime, I have never seen such a partisan divide, at least when it comes to national news coverage. With Fox on the right, and MSNBC on the left, and CNN operating with no apparent compass, it’s no wonder the public is highly skeptical. Partisan media becomes little more than an echo chamber, with people tuning into often one-sided “debate” that simply reflects and affirms their own viewpoints. Yes, it’s a turn on to listen to your own side, but a turn off to listen to your opponents. Listening to only one's own side doesn’t foster a healthy debate (or democracy), and I wonder if that clouds our individual and collective decision making.

“Money Matters” – I believe one of the big political turn offs is the amount of money it takes to run – win or lose. For example, in the recent campaign for Rhode Island Governor, over $10 million dollars were spent on TV and radio ads (and believe me, we broadcasters love that). One candidate even gave his campaign over $3 million dollars of his own money (and he lost). The average person who might want to donate $20 is simply scared away, feeling that contribution has no voice attached to it. By the way, this is dead-on true for both parties. The notion that Republicans are the party of the rich is nonsense. The wealthy come in all political stripes and have a dominant megaphone in both parties.

“High Expectations” – While I have railed against some of the outside influences leading to disenfranchisement, part of the problem lies with the voters themselves. Many people have become enthralled with the “What’s in it for me?” part of government. Their expectations are high, but the delivery of the goods is low. People want something for their money. I get that. Let’s take the health care debate. Yes, some people will get coverage they never had; but others will complain about the high cost of their premiums or the fact that many procedures aren’t fully covered as they had hoped or believed. Still others won’t get to keep their own doctors, even though they were promised they could. Then, there is the 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina syndrome, where people want their government to protect them, and it often doesn’t.

“You Actually Can Fight City Hall!” – As a nation, we have our perception of political power all backwards. We view things from the hierarchy of the President and Congress and on down. In truth, it doesn’t work that way. Change in Washington, D.C., has always been slow and incremental. The Founding Fathers – through “checks and balances” – designed it that way. Actually, the most responsive politicians, relatively speaking, are at the local level. If you really want to make change, or make a difference, go to your local Town Council or School Committee meetings, because you can actually have an impact there. But, watch a Cable TV access show of one of your local meetings. You could fire a cannonball through City Hall and not hit a soul. Local meeting attendance is abysmal. So, people often have their hopes – and priorities – in the place where it’s least effective.

“Why All This Matters!” – I’ve always said, “Democracy is nothing more than the marketplace of ideas!” Politicians can pass good and bad initiatives. But the public has a vital role, and so often average people don’t exercise their authority. Election Day turnout of 21 percent is hardly a shining example of participation. But let me point out one small, but powerful example of what I am talking about. Last year in Providence, the city ordered a community pool at the Davey Lopes Recreation Center closed due to high maintenance costs and low attendance. The pool is in a heavily minority- populated area. So what did the seemingly powerless residents do? They organized; they rose up; they raised money; they pressed the media; they stepped on powerful toes; and, they fought back. They empowered themselves and overruled City Hall. Today the pool is back open; the people won! See, you can make a difference - if you want to!

Are you turned off by politics? If so, why? Let us known by clicking the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Photo credit: Baloocartoons.com

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