Travelogue of an Unpolitician: Trying Not to Go Negative

Karen McKim —

July 4, 3:00 PM –

I am running as an independent candidate against an incumbent for county clerk in Dane County, Wisconsin, an office that oversees elections. I wish I had time to blog about my campaign every day. It is more interesting and fun than I’d anticipated. I think it helps that I’m running for no reason other than to promote understanding about, and improvement of, local election procedures. If I win—fabulous! Dane County can be a shining national model of modern election administration. If I lose, we’ll still be ahead, because I’ll have educated probably hundreds of citizens, candidates, and journalists about this previously overlooked issue.

But yikes, I feel guilty taking time out to write this post. My excuse is that I need to put my feet up between a morning 4th of July parade and more campaigning at afternoon events. The work itself is energizing, because the response from voters is wonderful. Even I hadn’t realized how many voters are interested in what I consider to be wonky facts about vote-counting. They have been using the voting machines without question or complaint. But when someone approaches them with “I am running for county clerk to make sure our voting machines are managed responsibly,” their faces light up. I’ve heard many remarks to the effect of: “I have been waiting to hear someone talk sensibly about that!”

WiseGuys-GoingNegativeBut this past week, I’ve had some imbalance and self-doubt. We’re still refining my “message.” The non-politician in me hates that term—my gut says, “Let’s do information, not message.” But the fact is, here in Campaign Land, you do need to plan your words very carefully to catch most voters’ attention in a few seconds, and you don’t have time for nuance or details.

My recent struggle has been with negative campaigning. I don’t want to settle on a negative message because we’re overwhelmed with negative messages about politicians as it is. It’s turning people off—even keeping down voter turnout. I am determined not to contribute to that.

In addition, many voters who are not turned off to politics in general are likely turned off to the negative campaigner. Particularly in a local race, you want to vote for the nice guy, not the mean or grumpy one.

Finally, it just feels icky. I wouldn’t be running for office if I didn’t take issue with the incumbent’s job performance, but still I’d rather not describe his failings to dozens of strangers unless I have to. “Ick” truly is the feeling when I’m talking about his failings rather than about Dane County’s potential for truly great election administration.

One easy patch—which you’ll notice in this post—is that I have learned to speak only of “the incumbent.” I used to think that was a pretentious device candidates used to avoid giving their opponent free publicity, but it’s not only that. Talking about “the incumbent” does make the message appropriately less personal and more focused on job performance. As a person—someone I would call by name—I don’t have any problem with him. He’s a nice guy. But the incumbent county clerk? I have some problems.

But in other ways, it’s tricky to avoid “going negative.” When circulating nominating petitions I learned quickly you cannot run against an incumbent without giving voters a reason to un-elect the man they elected just four years ago. One of the most frequent questions I get is: “What’s wrong with the clerk we’ve got?” or “I thought he was doing a good job. What is it that I don’t know?”

My issue in particular requires me to speak about his failures, even if I don’t use that word. Most voters—even some very well-educated ones—assume the county clerk routinely checks the accuracy of Election-Night computer output before he declares election results final. Heck, I’ve met municipal clerks and a top-flight investigative reporter who wrongly assumed that.

So if I start my pitch with: “I’m going to make sure our election results are routinely verified,” some respond as if I’m promising to make sure Wednesday will follow Tuesday. It doesn’t help that the incumbent claims to do audits, which is true only if an audit can be done by spot-checking just 2 of more than 150 voting machines; using an unreliable hand-count method; and waiting until after you’ve  declared the election results final to check their accuracy. It cannot. That exercise in no way protects our official election results from undetected computer errors. (You see? I had to give you information that makes the incumbent look silly to help you appreciate the need for the not-silly national recommendations I will implement as clerk.)

Which brings us to the next problem with negativity: Where is the line between sharing unpleasant facts about reality (e.g., The incumbent produced a voter-education video that makes getting Voter ID look difficult, time-consuming, and irritating) and going negative?

I think it might have to do with characterization. When the incumbent touts that video as one of his flagship achievements, I need to point out that it likely discouraged rather than inspired marginal voters. But I don’t have to characterize it as “careless” or “stupid.”

Here’s how hard it is, on the fly, to avoid sounding harsh:  As a grassroots independent running without the vetting of a party endorsement, I have to establish my credibility. So talking about my own education and experience is not optional. I have a master’s degree in public administration and 30 years’ experience in public-sector management.

In what turned out to be a misstep, I assumed I needed to contrast my experience with the incumbent’s. In reviewing his biographical profile, I noted he got a bachelor’s degree in political science, starting running for political office right after graduation, and didn’t hold any job that I would consider managerial until elected to his current job.

So in at least one stump speech I said: “The incumbent had no managerial experience before his current job, and it shows in his poor choices—like not investigating the cause of a known voting-machine miscount, and not consulting with audit professionals when he designed his own procedures.” A reporter picked up that quote—as far as the word “shows.”  I’m sure I said it but it certainly looked harsh in print when separated from any facts to back it up. Worse, the resulting article ignored the election-integrity issue.

But what is “managerial experience”? When the incumbent responded, he cited the fact that his peers had elected him to chair the county legislative body for a while. One could make a decent case that is—or comes close enough to—managerial experience.

I am not running for office to debate what is and is not “managerial experience.” The issue isn’t education and experience; it’s performance. If the incumbent had been a barefoot beachcombing ukulele player before being elected county clerk, and then implemented high-quality county canvass procedures, I’d be supporting his re-election. And if he had a PhD in election administration and 30 years of experience on the Federal Elections Commission, but was handling his current responsibilities no better than he has been, I’d be running against him.

So I scrubbed my website and campaign literature of negative reference to his previous experience, and in future appearances will speak only of my own.

However, this novice campaigner can’t shake an icky feeling that this won’t be the last time my foot slips off that fine line between sharing facts about the incumbent’s performance and unnecessary negative characterization. It’ll be fun to see if I can, though.

Okay, my feet are rested. Off to pester more 4th of July celebrants in the park.

3 thoughts on “Travelogue of an Unpolitician: Trying Not to Go Negative

  1. Thoroughly fascinating. Thank you. I’m a public person, too. I agree — the balance between making reality known and attacking (or appearing to attack) a person’s character is tricky. You’ve captured this well. Good luck in your campaign!


  2. Would you consider doing a follow-up “observations & analysis” piece on the procedures and results of the recent Jill Stein-initiated recounts? Perspectives from those on the “front lines” are usually insightful and educational.
    What do you think for 2020 (foresight!): How about a viable Third Party from David Gillespie and you count the votes?
    Thanks for your input.


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