Winning the Political Game: Stay Out of The ‘Tunnel’

I learned an important campaign lesson from a veteran campaign manager a number of years ago. 

He told me how he was running a statewide campaign for governor. It was a close, intense race and he had been working incredibly hard, focusing every bit of energy and attention on the campaign. It was all he could think about; he was constantly focused on strategy and all the myriad details of the election.

So on a Saturday afternoon on a nice November afternoon, with the election looming the next Tuesday, he was driving past a popular park. . He looked out the window and almost to his surprise, he saw people playing Frisbee, jogging, walking dogs and eating at picnic tables.

He recalls becoming almost angry: “Don’t these people know there’s a crucial election just a few days away? Don’t they know how important this is? How can they be out there relaxing and playing when there’s so much at stake and so much work to do?”

Then, he said, he realized he was making a very bad mistake. He was in the “campaign tunnel.” He had lost perspective, lost his feel for what average people were thinking and doing. The election had become all-consuming, to the exclusion of a normal outlook on life.  

Descending into the “tunnel” is dangerous because you forget that the vast majority of people aren’t paying attention to politics, they aren’t following every campaign story in the newspapers, or paying much attention to TV news. They just aren’t interested. An effective campaign manager or candidate understands this and takes it into account in a number of ways.

Candidates and campaign workers who get into the “tunnel” and remain there are more likely to make bad decisions. They might, for example, be the subject of a bad or good news story and think that everyone in the world has seen it and it’s having a big impact when, in reality, it accounts for a tiny blip. They might overreact or underreact in a number of ways. They might hold a press conference, drawing attention to an accusation, when they don’t need to. Or they might not make extra efforts to reach average citizens because they think they’re already paying attention.

That’s why it’s important to be grounded in reality throughout the campaign, to interact with people outside the campaign and keep the campaign in the right perspective. The campaign might be the absolutely most important thing in the world to you. You might be eating, drinking, breathing and living politics. But if you start to think others are like you, thinking like you, you’ll run a very bad campaign. It’s a particularly important lesson to keep in mind right at the end of a campaign.