Last month, Americans watched as Virginia and New Jersey both elected new governors. While the lessons of both campaigns are still being dissected, virtually everyone agrees that Chris Christie profited most of all from having a terrible incumbent as an opponent. The real lessons for political candidates in competitive races stem from Virginia’s Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell didn’t just win big. He helped his party win every statewide seat on his coattails. How he won needs to be examined. While the talking heads chalk up his astounding victory to his singular focus on jobs and the economy, the talking heads are 100% wrong, as is usually the case. McDonnell's lopsided victory was the result of much more.
To be sure, McDonnell’s message of jobs and economy did work. Equally certain is the fact that these are prime concerns for Virginia voters, who’ve elected Democrats to all of the most prominent statewide offices since 2001 (with the exception of Senator John Warner’s unopposed reelection in 2002). But there is another factor to McDonnell’s victory that far too many pundits have ignored.
Anyone can deliver a message of “jobs” and of a better economy, and in so doing they will more often than not be met with guffaws of derisive laughter. Throughout the Virginia campaign, McDonnell’s sincerity shined threw, making his promises worth listening to and causing voters to tune in to hear the specifics of his message. A lesser man could not have accomplished this.
Key to McDonnell’s ability to connect with voters was the fact that he did not shy away from his sound beliefs, even as many were trying to portray them as a liability. It certainly didn’t hurt that his opponent kept reminding everyone of McDonnell’s longstanding devotion to his faith. After all, Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds had a jobs platform too. His just lacked believability.
The talking heads derided McDonnell’s religious side as a liability. To be fair, I guess it can be said that if not for the religious issues, McDonnell may well have won by 10 points and brought with him a seat or two on his coattails. But religious issues did play a large part in the campaign, so he won by 18 points and gave his party a clean sweep. That’s reality.
Voters were reminded by Deeds that McDonnell’s religion was not a political sideshow. The lengths that his opponent went to in order to smear McDonnell as someone who was outside of the mainstream only ended up alerting voters to the sincere and longstanding nature of his beliefs. Candidates on both the right and the left can learn from this episode.
Candidates on the right can learn not to shy away from their true beliefs on any matter. Grounded sincerity is both morally right and a prime political commodity. Voters may disagree with you, but will still admire your sincerity. They may recognize that you can get important things done, even if they disagree with part of your message. At the very least, your honest stance will earn you the ear of the public, who you can then win over to your side.
Candidates on the left can learn the same lessons, as can recruiters of such candidates. Those who have a long track record of community involvement will not only be more familiar with the issues facing everyday voters than candidates with no such experience. Their history of civic participation will usually be coupled with unique sincerity, a quality that will set them aside from the rest of the field.
This is the true lesson of the double digit McDonnell victory and the clean sweep his party enjoyed by way of his coattails: Sincere belief is the best foundation for political ability and acumen. Sincerity is the best commodity that a candidate can have and is something that both parties should look for when recruiting people to run for office. Most importantly, sincerity is also the best precursor to good governance and to getting the job done, both of which should be the ultimate goals of seeking political office.