September 15, 2013
LIKE HAVING EVERY GIRL IN YOUR HIGH SCHOOL TELL YOU SHE WON'T GO TO THE PROM WITH YOU (self-reference alert):
What's It Like When You Know You're About to Lose an Election? (PHILIP BUMP, SEP 9, 2013, The Atlantic)
Political campaigns are zero-sum. You invest months of your time, huge amounts of money, and in one evening either learn you have a job for several years -- or you have nothing. Even for staff, campaigns are tense and time-limited, efforts to balance a thousand priorities following a formula that ideally cobbles together the necessary votes for victory. The process of losing is so unpleasant that a number of former candidates we reached out to weren't interested in revisiting the topic.Mel Gagarin was. In 2009, Gagarin ran for city council in New York's 29th Council District, an area in Queens that overlaps a little with Weiner's old congressional seat. Gagarin's candidacy, facing what was, in effect, two incumbents, was "an uphill climb from jumpstreet," in his words. But that didn't mean he didn't think he might win."I think two things happen" when you run for office, he told The Atlantic Wire by email. "One is you become trapped inside of your own campaign bubble and your own internal numbers of doors knocked, etc. That gives a false sense of hope. ... Second is you've invested so much into it that it's almost impossible to admit defeat until the very end."
We've told the story here before, but in 1985 I almost accidentally ended up working on the NJ gubernatorial campaign of Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro, at that point, one of the bright lights of the Technocrat movement in the Democratic Party (just barely preceding the New Democrats).
I liked Mr. Shapiro and didn't especially like Governor Tom Kean and there was never any chance that the incumbent would lose. At the time, Ronald Reagan had the highest popularity ratings in NJ polling history and Governor Kean was second. The idea was that winning the primary would position Mr. Shapiro for the next statewide race, which he'd actually have a shot at winning.
But, of course, that's not how you sell a campaign to staff, volunteers and donors, nor even to yourself necessarily. Everyone (nearly) has to buy into the possibility of winning or the campaign won't be serious.
Just before the primary I worked in the campaign headquarters in Newark for several weeks and the staff was so barebones that they had me drive the candidate a few times on weekends, a task that also included working as "security," the advance man, and the press liaison. After he upset the field and won the nomination they put me in the car with the candidate during the week also, though two Essex County cops alternated the driving/security Monday through Friday.
Much of the staff was upset that a young Reagan Republican was chosen for a spot that had continual access to the nominee--which is the be-all-and-end-all of politics. [For some perspective, the one unforgivable sin in the eyes of most was support for the contras.] But his wife in particular--who'd given incredibly mature birth to their child that spring--liked having me there because I was the one staffer with no personal stake in the race and who she could count on to ignore the demands of the rest of the staff and fellow pols, precisely because I had nothing to gain from acceding to them, having no future in Democratic politics. Whatever the rest of the campaign thought my role was, the reality was that I was in large part there to insulate the candidate from them and make sure he spent as much time as possible with his family.
The race that Fall may have been pre-determined--the governor grudgingly allowed one debate and the Times had to be threatened into doing its previously standard Editorial Board interview--but the campaign was pretty innovative. The message was boiled down to just three issues: toxic waste, property taxes and car insurance rates. It was Mr. Shapiro who taught me that political campaigns, if they are lucky, can only convey a limited set of themes and must repeat them ad nauseum. [Given NJ's position between the NYC and Philly tv markets it's incredibly hard to be heard at all.] Such tv ads as we could afford were done by Mandy Grunwald, who later became Bill Clinton's director of advertising. The ads, loosely based on the Wham! video where they have on t-shirts with one giant word on them, used white words on a background to hammer home the three themes. Against a less popular incumbent some of it might even have mattered.
But nothing mattered.
As the poll numbers came in late in October and showed that the needle hadn't moved at all, each member of the senior staff went through a psychic break where they realized we were toast. Normally decent and reasonable people spent a day or two being surly and disconsolate. Then they'd break through to the other side and several of them actually enjoyed the last two weeks of the race, having been relieved of all pressure.
Comically, after she went through her breakdown--which included an ugly encounter with me--the press secretary asked if I'd mind if she rode along in the press bus (mini-van) that I drove the last week. I told her it was her bus and we'd love to have her with us. We enjoyed ourselves greatly. There is no more exciting vantage from which to enjoy a political campaign than on the hustings with the candidate, mingling with the crowds and kibbitzing with the ink-stained wretches.
Reconciled to the inevitable, and seeing no point in standing around a ballroom while the ugly numbers rolled in, we all spent Election Night in an upstairs suite getting good and drunk. Earlier that day I'd cast my one and only vote for a Democrat to this day, with never a glimmer of a notion that he could even come close to winning. But the final tally was even worse than anyone thought it could be with the candidate carrying only three towns, including the obscure liberal enclave of Roosevelt, which changed its name to honor FDR when he died.
By the time I got downstairs all the senior party leadership had fled, lest they acquire the stench of defeat. Quotes for the next day's election post-mortems were being gathered from that blistering phallus Robert Toricelli--who was gleefully stabbing the candidate in the back, declaring his career over--and from sobbing teenage volunteers whingeing hysterically. Despite handling the press at events for the past five months I'd never wavered from the campaign script nor extemporized, but right then and there I got to as many of the press as I could find and emphasized that it was always an unwinnable race and that no one in the party could have done any better.
When next we met, the candidate gave me a good deal of grief about adopting the role of campaign spokesman, but also expressed his gratitude that the stories had some balance. I never saw him despair about the coming defeat, but did get some sense then of just how lonely and rejected it must make one feel.
I often tell people that to really appreciate the glory of the republic they need to participate fully in at least one political campaign. And nothing is more remarkable about our politics than that after we vote, and a winner is declared, the loser wishes him well, accepts his defeat, and moves on. We've been doing it so long and it's become so natural that we've lost sight of how honorable this acceptance of defeat is.
For all the contempt folks hold politicians in, it's a terribly demanding profession and they get put through a meat grinder. What's it like to lose an election? You know that old adage about how you don't want to watch the legislative process too closely any more than you want to watch your sausage being made? Well, at the end of the electoral process the winner at least gets to be a hot dog. The loser is left to gather the bits and pieces of himself back together and make himself whole again.
You wouldn't wish it on anybody. You wish everybody went through it once.
Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2013 10:00 AM