Conventional Un-Wisdom: The Candidate’s spouse is above the campaign, they are not subject to the rules and expectations and should not be subjected to training and preparation. They know the candidate better than anyone and thus are more than capable of representing the candidate’s character and capacity in support of the campaign without guidance or training. Their responsibilities are limited only to what they wish to do.
When you look in on campaigns that are operating without professional direction or even some that do have professional direction, one of the common early failures is not defining the role, rules and hierarchy of the campaign to the candidate and their spouse. This results in the candidate and spouse defining their own roles and making their own hierarchy, which likely doesn’t adhere to any concept of “organized campaigning.”
In the first meeting with the candidate and spouse, the campaign manager should sit down and discuss the rules and expectations for the each of them. There should be discussion of time commitments, health concerns, and priorities. There are two very simple rules for the spouse to latch on to early. Spouse’s Rule #1: If you aren’t happy, you need to notify the campaign manager and discuss the situation. Spouse’s Rule #2: If the candidate isn’t getting enough sleep, food or is otherwise showing signs of declining/poor health, you must notify the campaign manager asap. Some will scoff that these rules border in to “marriage counselor territory” and distract the campaign manager from their responsibilities. The first is true, but, this is your responsibility, if the candidate’s spouse is unhappy or the candidate isn’t healthy, there isn’t much about the campaign that isn’t going to be negatively impacted. These rules are also accompanied by a rule for the candidate, Candidate’s Rule #1: Your primary responsibility is to make your spouse happy, if your spouse isn’t happy, you won’t win.
When you put forward those simple rules in an honest projection of what the time commitment and expectations of the campaign are from the beginning, you are far likely to incur issues later in the campaign. After establishing these rules, you can move on to defining the hierarchy of the campaign and the commitments and behavioral expectations. If the candidate’s spouse wants to play a minimal role in the campaign, that must be established early. If they are interested in playing a large role, that too must come out early. Either way, there is training and preparation to be done. You cannot wait until there is an urgent need to prepare the spouse, such as a pending media story. If the spouse desires to play a small role, is unprepared and then by random chance encounters a reporter, good luck controlling the story. If the spouse expects to play a large role, they need to have the limits and expectations defined early or they will quickly put the campaign in the position of either honoring the spouses commitments, making an alternate deal, or hanging the spouse out to dry. Consider the statement to be made:
“Mr. Dough made commitments without consulting his wife’s campaign, had he done so, he would know his wife and the campaign are already committed to attend a different event on the other side of the district on the evening in question, we apologize to the super_awesome_organization_01 for the miscommunication and hope their event will be a tremendous success.”
Doesn’t exactly leave warm and fuzzy feelings does it? There will likely be additional tension between the spouse and the campaign, and possibly between the spouse and the candidate as well. By properly preparing the candidate and their spouse well in advance, you can avoid all of these headaches a long the way.
Like all surrogates, the spouse needs to talk with campaign communications staff about what they will say when speaking in support of the campaign, how they will answer questions, and what to do when they don’t know or don’t wish to answer a question. Often surrogates think they have the best ‘story’ to tell about why they support the candidate, but it is rare that the story in question fits with the campaign’s message. Some surrogates are such tremendous storytellers that the off-message anecdote may work fine, but more often it will be a too long, too far off course, inside joke that the audience won’t receive in the manner the surrogate intends. The most common mistake for surrogates, just like candidates, is to speak too long.Shorter speech with more Q & A will provide the audience with a better impression and create an environment were the audience is more likely to get engaged in the campaign. A well prepared speaker can put forward a short “stump speech” that evokes questions the surrogate wants to answer. The same statement made as a response to an audience question will receive a far different response from the audience then when made as part of a speech. Given preparation and practice, surrogates often learn to enjoy this and become more engaged themselves, better displaying their passion and confidence for the candidate/campaign.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is teaching surrogates, particularly spouses not to inject their own thoughts/feelings/expectations of the candidate/campaign’s positions. Teaching surrogates to say “I can’t answer that, but I’ll be sure someone will get back to you with the answer very soon,” requires a great deal more effort than you might expect, but has long rewards if the follow up process is handled well. The inclination is often to say something more like, “I can’t speak for my wife, but I personally believe that sporks are the best utensils and all others should be banned in the state.” The disclaimer that it is a personal opinion is of no value, the surrogate is standing as a representative of the campaign in support of the candidate. A surrogate should express no opinions that do not adhere to the campaigns message and stated positions.
One thing that is often overlooked is that there is a particular talent and skill to being a surrogate, and it doesn’t always correlate with the talent and skill of being a candidate. Some candidates/politicians make terrific surrogates, where you leave the room wanting to vote for the person they were supporting. Others are terrible at it, alienating potential voters or more often having voters leave the room wanting to vote for the surrogate, not the candidate. Most experienced politicians can learn to be good surrogates, but first they have to understand and admit that they aren’t the best surrogates they could be and ask for help. This is of course a rarity among experienced politicians, admitting weakness. When you are talking about the candidate’s spouse, they may be great about this, coming in with a “I don’t do this, teach me” attitude, or the may come in saying “I know her better than anyone, you can’t teach me how to support her, I’ve been doing it for 25 years.” Again, if you don’t approach the subject early, problems will develop and further complicate the process.
There are some odd quirks that come up depending on the spouse’s life, from career to recreational activities, the campaign needs to be as aware of the spouse’s life as they are of the candidate’s. Financial disclosure should be discussed early on, the spouse should be aware that they will be scrutinized in the public eye just as much as their spouse, if not more so (depending on their situation). They need to recognize that once the campaign begins, all of their actions, no matter how personal they feel they are, can and will impact their spouse’s campaign. This becomes particularly important in dual-career families, where both spouses have successful careers, there is potential for negative impact on their spouse’s career as a result of the campaign. Discuss it early, understand the possibilities and avoid traumatic fallout later in the campaign.
Children, particularly teenage children and young adults, should also be brought in to the discussion of how the campaign will impact their lives. They need to be warned that they could become a subject for gossip and media coverage, that their first kiss might make it to the front of the local newspaper. Use of social media should be discussed and the campaign’s new media person should help the kids “restrict” their Facebook access to just friends and family. Kids are incredibly resilient and much more tolerant to all of this stress if they understand it before it happens, the opposite is true if they are not prepared honestly in advance. They are more likely to lash out and feel as if they are being persecuted, blame their parent(s) and generally disrupt the campaign. I do not recommend using children as surrogates.
When a campaign is built on a strong foundation from early on, with open and honest discussions about expectations and responsibilities for everyone involved, the opportunity for success is far greater. When we make assumptions and leave things ambiguous, they will create problems we won’t know how to fix. With all of this, fold back in those Rules of Organizing, “If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.” Write down the defined roles, responsibilities and expectations for the Candidate, Spouse, Campaign Manager, Surrogates and other staffers.
Mario Piscatella is a political consultant with extensive experience campaigning all over the country. In addition to general consulting and strategy, he is focusing on improving the quality of campaigns through training of candidates, staff, surrogates and volunteers. He is the founder of MPA Political, LLC and does trainings for Democracy for America and other organizations around the country.
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