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The Underdog Element

To Be Or Not To Be … An Underdog

Resonating with the public is the ultimate goal for anyone running for office, so how do you do that if you are relatively unknown?

The age of the underdog is thankfully, alive and well in politics. People seem to show interest and ask questions about unknown candidates. These questions in turn, help raise the profile of the candidate thereby elevating them to a level playing field with his or her opposition.

The term underdog, from the idea of being the least fancied in a fight, isn’t always appealing to politicians as it can cast them as weak. However, it is a story that can win votes as people seem naturally to be drawn to an unlikely challenger. Human nature being what it is, we like to see a plucky upstart fell their stronger rival. In 2012, Mitt Romney was such a candidate or at least, he claimed to be.

In facing the incumbent, Barack Obama, Romney was always going to have an uphill climb but when his supporters suggested he was the underdog from early in the Primaries many saw this as his campaign being tactically astute. Political insiders would know Romney’s game here especially when he declared that he was going to have trouble even in his home state of Michigan. While many might dismiss this as nonsense campaigning, it is actually smarter to to play down one's chances. During the Republican primaries, Romney kept his cards close to his chest and ultimately secured the nomination!

The Debate Factor

As a candidate, you are never more exposed than when you are standing on stage during a live televised debate. Is there anything more daunting?

Candidates are left vulnerable, perspiring under the glare of the spot lights. Social media may offer us an insight into the politician's human side but the spectacle of a public battle is what people really love. For the challenger a debate represents an opportunity to win over voters and land a few punches on their competitor. It is the boxing ring for words. In a very real sense the underdog has nothing to lose in a debate.

In one of the earliest televised debates, Vice-President Richard Nixon, the overwhelming favorite in the 1960 Presidential race took on a young and captivating John F.Kennedy. In what is now well documented in the history books, Nixon didn’t regard Kennedy as a legitimate threat. JFK’s calm and serene exterior lent itself well to the medium of television and he used this to his advantage. Compared to a visibly ill, pale and unshaven Nixon, the younger opponent knew how to leverage his physical attributes to win. While radio listeners declared Nixon the winner of the debate, they were in the minority. Optics were everything and visually, Kennedy was the victor as many households had televisions during the 1960s.

If an underdog can secure a live debate with an incumbent then they must capitalize on the opportunity just as Kennedy did. Outsiders are more likely to side with someone who has not yet been pigeonholed by the political machine. In 1982, Ray Shamie, a Republican senatorial nominee attempted to do this. The outgoing Senator was Ted Kennedy in the heavily Democratic Massachusetts so Shamie knew he had his work cut out. Shamie’s campaign attempted to dent the democratic support by challenging Kennedy to a live debate. When his requests fell on deaf ears, Shamie quickly reminded the media of Kennedy using a similar tactic against Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries. Shamie offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could get Kennedy to agree to a debate, quickly turning the spotlight onto the Democrats resistance. In the end, Kennedy was re-elected but Shamie secured 38.26% of the vote which would not have been possible if not for his unorthodox maneuvers.

The Principles of War

Running a campaign can be like preparing for war. You are fighting for what you believe in order to lead and want to win at all costs. For an underdog, they must exhaust all avenues in order to compete with the top level candidates. MOOSEMUSS are the nine principles of war and no, we are not talking about candidates taking up arms. Winning an election as a challenger can be achieved if a person can understand what strategy is, what strategy the campaign should use and by using the right tactics. The acronym stands for Mass, Objective, Offensive, Security, Economy of force, Maneuver, Unity of command, Simplicity and Surprise and these are the areas that challengers can work on to increase their chances of winning.

Mass: Bringing your resources together to maximize their effects and apply them to the right place at the right time. Kennedy did this during his debate against Nixon, he knew the medium of TV played to his strengths.

Objective: Just what are you trying to achieve here?

Offensive: When you hold the initiative, you control the events as they unfold. Justin Trudeau knew that his opposition were going to label him as inexperienced and not ready to lead. He quickly spun his ‘positive politics’ mantra, refusing to attack his liberal opponents on a personal level. This maturity showed that he was in fact ready and ultimately won him the Canadian election.

Security: Paired with offensive, the goals is always to hit your opponent but you must remember to protect yourself also. Political analyst, Jeff Greenfield once stated that “ there is no such thing as paranoia in politics, because they really are out to get you”.

Economy of force: Is something going to help you attain your objective? If not, don’t waste resources on it.

Maneuver: All your maneuvers should be geared towards putting your resources in positions to achieve decisive results and attain your objective. Implementing a grassroots mobilization team to carry out door-to-door canvassing would be useful here.

Unity of command: “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. Make sure to have necessary leaders appointed to take command of certain departments.

Simplicity: Simplicity is key. All campaigns need to turn the overwhelming project of a campaign into small, doable goals. “The economy, stupid" became the campaign message of Bill Clinton’s successful run to office against the incumbent George.W. H.Bush in 1992.

Surprise: Innovation. Don’t do what everybody else is doing, get creative.

It will never be easy to come into a political race relatively unknown or race off against an incumbent but there are things that you can do to improve your chances. Remember people aren’t as slow to embrace the unknown anymore, play up the anonymity and use it to your advantage.

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