Monday, May 23, 2016

For leaders of losing campaigns: on doing the right thing

What are the ethical obligations on the leadership of a political campaign to level with fervent supporters when/if they become certain the campaign is going to lose? Those supporters are the life blood of the entire enterprise. We're not only talking donors here; we're also talking about activists who give their time, their energy and their love to meaningful campaigns. These are gifts that are not to be scorned.

Yet sometimes the leaders who organize and promote all this energy have good objective knowledge that they cannot prevail. What do they owe their people?

I have had far too much experience of this situation. Here's one of my bottom lines: You are never obligated to say straight up to the media that you know you can't win. They'll want you to. I've had a microphone pushed in my face on election eve, essentially asking me to provide upbeat sentiments in a losing cause and I've complied. I'm not obligated to help the journalists get their story, though you should not outright lie to them.

On the other hand, you do owe it to your core supporters to prepare them for the blow. If the campaign was worth doing, the candidate worth electing, the measure worth passing or defeating, their commitment is the most valuable product of the campaign.

Your approach to this obligation may differ, depending on what your objective was from the beginning.

Sometimes you've known throughout that you were playing defense. For example, in the 1990s, California voted repeatedly on ballot measures which aimed in various ways to stem the changing demographic tide that was rapidly making us a "majority minority" state: restrictions on services to immigrants, ending affirmative action, preventing bilingual education, mass youth incarceration. Many white voters couldn't get enough of these measures and they were the people voting. Until more of the emerging majority of people of color and younger whites came into the electorate, these were going to pass. And they did. In those fights, responsible leadership mobilized communities to fight back at the ballot box in addition to expressing moral outrage. Campaigners knew they wouldn't win -- but they could learn to fight in this arena as well as in the communities and thereby help turn the tide. These campaigns were no time for pretending to ungrounded hopes; instead what mattered was to cultivate real hopes for real change over time.

Many campaigns are a closer ethical call for their leadership than this kind. Suppose you are working for a candidate or a measure that began the electoral season trying to make a point, but not expecting to win outright. But then the campaign went well, enthusiasm mounted, volunteers seemed to come out of the woodwork, it all proceeded so smoothly ... maybe you could win after all? If you are paying attention to your fundamentals -- the political context, maybe polls, the other side's assets -- your analytical brain tells you the miracle is not going to happen. But you are surrounded by eager hopeful people who begin to think victory is in sight. I've experienced this with candidates who've put their hearts on the line in a losing cause. The only ethical statement I've found to make to my own people at that point is to reiterate that, if everything were to break just perfectly, we might sneak through to a victory. But that is going to take everyone doing their part in a disciplined way and working for the best outcome possible. At the very least, let's not leave anything in the tank. This way, when you fail as you know you must, your people can at least be proud they did their all in the most effective fashion possible. You owe them this experience of efficacy.

The worst situation is when you chose the fight thinking you were going to win, then find yourself caught in an electoral battle in which your best understanding of the data tells you that you will lose. This happens to candidates and sometimes the affirmative side of ballot measures too often. It's a brutal situation. Ethical action requires going back to basics: your campaign's most important asset is your supporters. Lead them through the process, but never, never, never neglect to affirm and thank them for the gift of their hearts. They aren't getting paid; you are. You may want to engage in recriminations born of dashed hopes, but that is a luxury responsible leaders do not wallow in.

Nobody does this stuff perfectly. But good leaders can try. And, besides, sometimes your campaign wins and then you probably know that's coming also!

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