The unwritten rules of running for president

By Ken Feltman

The most reliable way to forecast the future is to try to understand the present.
– John Naisbitt

Unwritten rules affect all candidates for president. If a candidate does not know the rules, or ignores the rules, his or her chances of success drop. It is that simple and that cruel.

People who seek the highest office have self-esteem to spare. They believe that they are special and that they can blaze their own path to victory with a superior plan. This means that even a casual observer can handicap the declared, the coy and the rumored candidates, whittling down the field to the few who are following those pesky unwritten rules.

Most voters wait till things sort out a bit, closer to the election, on the theory that the decisive things happen later. That seems to work with professional basketball, where furious action fills the final minutes of close games. But presidential campaigns are more like football, where touchdowns scored in the first few minutes of a game often dictate the pace and outcome of the entire game.

Already, things have happened that make certain 2012 outcomes more likely. The unwritten rules, as much as the candidates’ performances on their chosen campaign trails, determine how things sort out. Many pundits say that it is still early in the nomination process. Actually, for a few just-announced and still-thinking-about-it candidates, it may be too late.

The rules:

– The early bird gets the worm

Sarah Palin was the most talked-about possible Republican candidate at the beginning of this year. Look at what has happened thus far and see the relentless rules in action. Although Palin has had huge success making money and friends by traveling the country and making television appearances with friendly hosts, her presidential campaign is becalmed.

Did she believe that her popularity with the tea parties made her an exception to the “early bird” rule? If you want to run, start yesterday and be wherever the media gather. Start before other candidates pick off some of your best supporters, staff and volunteers. Did Palin believe that her 2008 run gave her time to continue making money before jumping into the race? Rep. Michele Bachmann ended that strategy with a superior performance at the New Hampshire debate.

– Most of life is showing up

This variation of Woody Allen’s rule is especially true in politics. Palin’s large national following does not mean that she can change the unwritten rules. She cannot deny skeptical reporters and commentators access to her campaign and to herself without creating a self-fulfilling prophesy: The news organizations that she ignores do not ignore her and their coverage is frequently unfavorable. She could not skip the early debates and straw polls without consequences, either.

True, early debates cull the weak candidates. But early debates allow lesser known candidates to shine and top tier candidates to keep their supporters from defecting. Bachmann and Gov. Mitt Romney demonstrated how that works, to Palin’s detriment.

Palin’s moment passed. A candidate in Palin’s current position rarely regroups and wins. Palin may soon realize this, if she has not already. If she does, she is likely to bow out with the media concluding that she never intended to run. If she does run, she may fizzle. She has never sought the rapport of party leaders. Just as she could have started cultivating the media last year, she could have touched base with more influential Republicans – the party leaders who get asked by others what they think of the various candidates.

She chose to build up support among the tea parties. How much of a factor will the tea parties be at the Republican convention? Will tea party people go through the process to become delegates? Will they be there to vote when the roll call of the states begins?

Palin has become a celebrity but is not as credible a Republican candidate today. She has drifted away from the party that nominated her for vice president in 2008.

– Money makes you a player

Suddenly, Bachmann is tapping the same contributors as Palin. Bachmann is moving up in the polls. Bachmann, not Palin, is being mentioned by the media as an alternative to Romney.

Bachmann wanted to run. She knew that she would need to start before she was ready. She knew that once potential volunteers and financial supporters were enticed away by another candidate, they would be next to impossible to get back. So Bachmann lined up staff and recruited volunteers.

Her problem may not be recruiting people but retaining them. She has a reputation as a difficult person to work for. We have the lesson of Newt Gingrich to show us what can happen to tough bosses.

– Early contacts tend to become lasting ones

Some candidates have not made the early contacts.

Jon Huntsman has a good team but he is off to a late and slow start. He has not made solid media contacts. His familiarity with Republican operatives is limited. He is relying on his staff. They are good but Huntsman will have to make a strong personal appeal, and soon. His campaign may position him better for 2016 while failing to gain traction in 2012.

The reporters who will cover the conventions and campaigns next year have already befriended the declared candidates and their key staff. The current candidates want access to reporters to get their message out. The trade off: The reporters will continue to have access to those candidates and campaigns throughout the campaign.

One candidate has checked off the boxes, efficiently and without fanfare. Perhaps that is why Mitt Romney is considered the leader. The political writers like him because he has sought them out, regularly, routinely, all as part of his plan. He has done this despite the fact that he is painfully uncomfortable making small talk with people. Pressing the flesh is difficult for him but that makes him a success with the media: He goes into detail about issues and his campaign because he wants to avoid the discomfort of small talk.

Tim Pawlenty seems to believe that he can turn his campaign on and off. He wants time to himself, time to study issues, time to relax. Once a candidate starts campaigning, there is no turning things off. Pawlenty could improve his performance if he accepted the fact that there are no time outs.

Rick Perry will have excellent consultants – they abandoned Newt Gingrich – but he is getting in late. Too late? His campaign team is rumored to be trying to whip up a draft. But many things have already happened – often because of decisions made by the declared candidates – and those things limit Perry’s options. No one is going to travel to Austin to beg. Perry will have to do it on his own and with the calendar working against him.

His Texas-sized strengths are also his weaknesses. Outside the Southwest, candidates in cowboy boots still attract more attention than votes – which is why both Presidents Bush wore wingtips when appropriate.

Perry’s supporters are right about one thing: Soon, we may hear talk of a draft of this person or that one. The political pundits may make more of the supposedly unsatisfied Republican electorate than warranted.

Just remember, in presidential politics as at the local watering hole, the only genuine draft is a beer.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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10 Responses to The unwritten rules of running for president

  1. Mamuka says:

    Good writing, as always.

  2. Rena Kildow says:

    The info you provide is interesting and a fresh approach. Thanks for the different viewpoint!

  3. Amanda says:

    So you don’t think Sarah can step in and win? Who do ytou think will go to the convention? The Tea Party faithful, that’s who.

  4. Ron from D.C. says:

    I wait for these analysis articles with forecasts, even just implied as here. Thanks! You are interesting to read and so often you are right.

  5. Ben G says:

    Glad to have this analysis. I’ve sent this off to friends interested in politics.

  6. Abbott says:

    You are a shill for Romney. Ron Paul isn’t even mentioned!!!

  7. Tully Omaha says:

    Interesting analysis. I recall that you said not to count McCain out last time after he ran out of money and fired staff and he got the nomination like you said.

  8. Steve says:

    So you’re for Romney?

  9. Robbie says:

    People think that you are supporting Romney. I didn’t read it that way but maybe you should have made clear who you are for (if anyone).

  10. Speak Easy Fred says:


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