This was first featured on ElectWomen Magazine in 2009. It’s worth repeating.
Falling Forward in Politics – Six Tips on Enduring a Political Loss By Matt Lewis (as published in Campaigns & Elections Magazine)
Today, the stakes in political campaigns are high. It’s no surprise that in some cases, Election Day defeat can lead to depression and a loss of self-esteem.
Serious political candidates make major sacrifices involving family time and financial income just to take achance of being a public servant. It’s easy to see how devastating a loss can be for anyone willing to be, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “the man in the arena.”
But candidates aren’t the only ones who sacrifice. The candidate’s spouse, children, and staffers also must endure the ups and downs of victory and defeat. Young campaign managers invest two years of their lives in a gamble that ends on Election Day. Even the winners have trouble adjusting to the normal pace of post-campaign life. And the losers feel as though they’ve lost a member of the family.
Few campaigners are prepared for this roller coaster ride. That’s why I’ve created this list…to help prepare you for the realities of political life…before you run.
What your campaign seminar didn’t teach you about winning and losing:
1. People in politics fear failure is a stigma – IT’S NOT.
James Baker ran for Attorney General of Texas in 1978…and lost. He managed George H.W. Bush’s Presidential campaign in 1980…and lost. But instead of giving up, he went on to become what many consider to be a top-notch Chief of Staff for Reagan – and even Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush. More recently, Bob Shrum has been behind almost every Democrat Presidential defeat for the last twenty years. Yet, in early 2004, L.A. Weekly News reported that, “Shrum is a Democratic political consultant so much in demand that, before he signed on to John Kerry’s campaign, inside-the-Beltway journalists were speculating in print on which candidate would win “the Shrum primary.” If those examples don’t convince you that losing isn’t fatal, here’s another revelation: Howard Dean wouldn’t be DNC Chairman if it weren’t for his failed presidential campaign. As the late Senator Sam Ervin, Jr. once said, “Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.”
2. Take comfort that you are in the arena.
By getting involved in campaign politics, you have already proven to be an exceptional person. Average people rarely take chances, and thus have few failures and few successes. The fact that you failed at something means you were being aggressive. To use a sports analogy, the best hitters in baseball still get out seven-out-of-ten times. Sure, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, but you’re still better than (as Theodore Roosevelt described them), “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
3. Realize everybody loses.
In their book Buck Up, Suck Up…And Come Back When You Foul Up, James Carville and Paul Begala write, “Perseverance. Toughness. Tenacity. Those are the qualities that make the difference. Real winners know they’ve got to lose a lot.” Carville and Begala ought to know. They lost a lot of races in the old days, including suffering the worst defeat a Democrat had received in Texas history. Ironically, their careers were resurrected by Bob Casey, a man who was then thought of as one of the greatest failures in Pennsylvania political history. In truth, every single successful person is someone who failed, but never considered themselves a failure. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Einstein was told by a teacher he would never amount to much. You should view this setback as a stepping stone on your way to the next victory.
4. Your campaign inspired future leaders.
Conservative icon Morton Blackwell says, “Don’t fully trust anyone until he has stuck with a good cause which he saw was losing.” That’s because sticking with a good cause that is losing says something about your character. Many of today’s best political leaders got their start working for losing campaigns. Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley started out working for Gary Hart (who was the manager for George McGovern’s failed Presidential bid). So that seventeen year-old kid who volunteered for your campaign could be governor some day. Think of it this way: would Ronald Reagan have been elected president if Barry Goldwater hadn’t run in 1964? Or consider Pat Robertson’s failed Presidential bid in 1988. Although he lost that election, his supporters (who were calling themselves the Christian Coalition by 1994) helped bring about the Republican Revolution. Not bad for a failed campaign. That’s what I call “failing forward!”
5. Your campaign brought issues to the forefront.
In 2000, John McCain lost the Republican Presidential Primary to George W. Bush. But, during the first Congressional legislative session to follow the election, campaign finance reform passed. Had McCain not run for office and made it his signature issue, it is doubtful campaign finance reform would have been passed – and signed – by President Bush.
6. You learned lessons that will help you win next time.
Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln all lost political campaigns before achieving their destiny. Reagan lost in 1976, but won in 1980. Churchill (who was turned out as Prime Minister after defeating the Nazis) persevered and became Prime Minister again. And every schoolchild knows the story of all the losses and hardships endured by Abraham Lincoln. These men became great because they had to endure what Churchill vividly referred to as his, “wilderness years.” On a lighter note, NBA coach Rick Pitino puts it this way: “Everything I’ve learned about coaching I’ve learned from making mistakes.”
By understanding these six principles, you will be on your way to realizing that failure is temporary. What makes the person isn’t whether or not you fail, but rather, how you handle adversity, and what you learn from it, that counts.
I wish you the best of luck!