Winning the political game: 10 tips for political survival

It’s kind of embarrassing, actually, but I’ve been hanging around politics in one way or another for some 45 years. That’s probably longer than most Utahns have been alive. I really should retire. I’ve been either observing the political scene as a news reporter or editor or participating as a campaign manager, governor’s staffer or hired gun.

When I first covered state government as a young reporter, filling in for a veteran reporter on vacation, Cal Rampton was governor. He was a Democrat and the state somehow survived (and even thrived)! But he would be a conservative Democrat in today’s political environment.

Over the years, I hope I’ve learned a thing or two about politics. One thing I’ve developed is a healthy respect for those willing to put their names on a ballot to be accepted or rejected by their peers. Politics can be a very tough business. Politicians experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as someone used to say about sports. It’s not all headlines and glory. There’s a lot of hard slogging and disappointment.

A number of years ago I shared my top 10 tips for political survival. With even a lot more wear on my sneakers, here’s an update to help politicians keep things in perspective:

  1. Stay humble and teachable. Don’t ever get the idea that you’re invincible or indispensable. Over and over again, locally and nationally, I’ve seen examples of politicians so bloated with self-importance that they feel they can do no wrong. That’s when they’re vulnerable. If you ever start feeling you can get away with most anything, remember this: You’re one tiny act away from destroying your political career and perhaps your family and life.
  2. Don’t take negative press personally. A few nasty news media hits make you feel like everyone is staring at you, everyone is against you. They’re not. Your world really isn’t falling apart. You’d be amazed at the number of people who haven’t seen the press reports, don’t believe them or don’t care. Your family, friends and neighbors still love you. Negative press comes with the territory. Put it behind you and go on.
  3. Remember: Politics is a game. Actually, it’s not really a game. It’s serious stuff — taxes, health care, the death penalty and war. It’s momentous decisions that affect millions of people. But if you don’t maintain a certain gamelike mentality, it will drive you crazy and eat you alive. You can’t obsess and worry and fret. You win some and lose some. You do your best and go on.
  4. Pick a few priorities and focus on them. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Civic-minded people often want to right every wrong and fight every evil. You can’t do it all, and you won’t be effective if you try. Be generally knowledgeable, but choose your targets. Specialize in a few areas.
  5. Once you’ve made a decision, don’t look back. By the time most decisions reach your level, they are very close and very difficult, with strong arguments on both sides. But you have to make a decision and then be firm, be resolute. Fight for your position and make a strong case. Acknowledge differing opinions, but don’t waver.
  6. Readily admit mistakes. When you goof up, and you will, admit it freely. We are a forgiving people. We don’t expect perfection. We know you’re human. But we don’t like hypocrisy. Never, never, never compound your error by attempting a cover-up. The cover-up becomes a much bigger story and will be much more damaging than the original infraction.
  7. Spend your political capital. Take on some tough issues that will benefit your constituents in the long run. Success in politics is 50 percent of the vote, plus 1. You don’t need 70 or 80 or 90. Doing some hard things, even against public opinion, will win you long-term respect and support.
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Most political failures are failures of communications. Most political wins are triumphs of communications. I’m surprised at the number of politicians at all levels who are lousy at communicating. Getting your name in the paper once in a while isn’t enough. Except for a few top positions, here’s the reality: Most of your constituents don’t know who you are and couldn’t name you if asked. So you must constantly communicate, not just in election years. Be active on social media. Hold town meetings. Send a newsletter. Direct citizens to your Web site or blog. Give speeches to service clubs, chambers of commerce, etc.
  9. Interact especially with three constituent groups. (A) Opinion leaders (business leaders, ecclesiastical leaders, mayors, city council members, planning commission members, etc.). Make a list and communicate/meet one-on-one and in small groups as often as possible. Take them to lunch, stop by their office, let them know what you’re doing and ask for their suggestions and advice. (B) Political activists. Party caucus attendees, precinct officers, state and county delegates, and neighborhood activists. Make a list and communicate with or meet with them regularly. Call them. Listen to them. (C) Active voters. It’s easy to obtain a list of active voters. Send them regular newsletters. Invite them to town meetings and events. Get their e-mail addresses and send them legislative updates. Let them know you’re listening and you care.
  10. Be willing to walk away. Keep politics in perspective. Never let politics become so central, so dominant in your life, that you can’t leave it behind, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Other things are just as important or more so. Have a life outside of politics.
  11. (bonus) Have fun! Political involvement is a great opportunity, a great experience. Enjoy every minute.