Rule 1: Think strategically. Nothing is a better recipe for success than to plan your activities carefully and to act according to a clear strategic plan.
One of the reasons why promising politicians fail, is the lack of strategic planning. Strategic planning in politics means that you set yourself a clear and measurable objective and define your target image, i.e. how you want to be seen by your voters at the end of an election campaign or your term in office. Analyze the situation, in particular your strengths and weaknesses with regard to what extent they influence your chances to reach your objective. Define those issues, messages, target groups and means of communication, which can best support your efforts and focus your resources on those activities, which will lead to success.
The advantage of strategic planning is that it helps you to focus your ideas, activities and resources upon one single objective: your success. Nothing you do happens by accident. Everything becomes a means towards one end: success. While strategic planning is regularly applied in the military field and in business, for many politicians it is still an alien thing to do. Some prefer to leave everything they do to “creativity”, “political instinct“ or “political experience”.
Or they simply trust upon the good-will and the wisdom of the voters who somehow will recognize and reward quality. In practice, the lack of strategic planning leads to unclear messages, a wishy-washy profile, the waste of scarce resources, the demotivation of supporters and finally to defeat.
However, it is not enough to undergo a process of strategic planning. Once a strategy has been developed it must be carried through. It goes without saying that changes in the environment can force you to adapt or even redefine your strategy to new conditions. Indeed constant checking is a central feature of strategic planning. But then the adapted or redefined strategy must be carried through. Many politicians who embark upon strategic planning like to apply only those elements of the strategy which suit them. This cannot work if strategic planning is done properly.
In this case, all elements of the strategy are interlinked and no part can be removed or ignored without damaging the whole. However, your opponents’ unwillingness to plan strategically is to your advantage. Somebody who has a precise plan and acts in a targeted way is always more likely to succeed than somebody who is guided by spontaneity. Finally, do not publish your strategy. Keep it secret. For if your political opponents know your strategy, they will try everything to neutralize it.
Rule 2: Do not just plan for victory. Know and tell your voters what you will do with your victory.
One of the most surprising facts about politicians is that they never really seem to understand that voters expect from them immediate and tangible benefits for themselves. Often politicians only speak about what they want to achieve for themselves, i.e. to become President, Member of Parliament or City Councilor. They assume that the reason behind their personal ambition is self-explanatory to the voters. Voters, they think, will take for granted that once in office I will work hard for them.
This assumption, however, is wrong. Do not expect that voter will automatically trust you only because you are a noble and well-meaning Liberal. Take into account that many voters distrust politicians. They believe that all politicians are selfish. Politicians, they suspect, do not look after their voters but after their own interests. You must therefore explain to your potential voters why they should send you and not somebody else into the President's Office, to Parliament or to the City Council.
Your personal ambitions or your personal credentials and convictions do not mean anything to the average voter. Voters want to know before an election what exactly you will do for them in your new job. And only if the answer is convincing will they give you a mandate. Then you also do not have to buy their votes before election day by handing out bread or blankets.
Thus before you enter into a campaign, think about what you can deliver after victory, write it down and communicate it to your voters. They must be convinced that you have to become the President, a Member of Parliament or a City Councilor because you - and only you - will promote their interests and cater for their needs after they have given you a mandate. And keep in mind that it is also good for you to know what you will do with your victory. Do not forget: just as the purpose of war is not victory but the subsequent peace, the purpose of an election campaign is not to win, but to rule or exert influence after election day. Be prepared for it.
Rule 3: Analyze your strong and your weak points and try to reduce or eliminate those weak points which prevent you from succeeding.
As a successful politician you should always be aware of your strong and your weak points. It is normally not so difficult to write down your strong points. But keep in mind that strong points are only really strong when they correspond to weaknesses of your opponent. If you have sufficient money for a media campaign this is merely a strong point if your opponent lacks money. If he also has enough resources to use the media effectively you have no comparative advantage. Far more difficult is the identification of weak points. Here you must be absolutely honest and tough with yourself.
It is obvious that a strategy can only work if it is based on facts, not on wishful thinking. Therefore do not try to disguise weaknesses. Self-deceit is no recipe for success. If your opponent has more resources than you, if your party is deeply divided about an important issue or if your party leader is unpopular do not ignore or deny these facts, but take them into account in your planning. Do not only rely upon friends, relatives or member of your team, because they may just tell you what they think you want to hear. If you really want to know about your weak points, listen to somebody from outside of your own circles who does not want to impress or flatter you.
Once you have identified your weak points, rank them according to their impact on your chances to succeed and according to your prospects to influence them. Remember that, for instance, you may have just ten months until election day. You should then only address those weak points, which you can realistically reduce or eliminate within ten months. If you lack a political manifesto it can be written in a few weeks. But if your party has never attracted voters from a certain religious minority in your constituency, it is not very likely that in ten months you will win this minority over. Nor should you waste your resources on those facts and attitudes, which are beyond your influence. You are not able to change the number of illiterate people in your constituency in ten months, even if illiteracy among voters may be a very important stumbling block on your road to success.
Concentrate on those weak points, which have an impact on your success but can be dealt with within the time frame at your disposal. Develop for each of these points a sub-strategy in which you define what you want to achieve and by when and how you will do it. If you lack money, plan a funds-raising campaign and write down how much money you want to raise by what date. If you lack allies in an important interest group, develop a sub-strategy on how you can get into contact with important people in that interest group and by when you will do so.
Check on a regular basis how far you have already come in reaching your objectives. Finally, do not forget that you can turn every weak point into a strong point if you are clever and imaginative. If for instance your opponent is a long-standing, experienced and influential politician while you are a new young contender, attack him for being worn out, lacking fresh ideas or having lost touch with the voters.
Rule 4: Listen to the people and focus on their prime needs
Many politicians love to enter into debates with other politicians on petty political details instead of promoting the interests of their voters. Debate then becomes an affair within the political class, which bores voters and leads to alienation between those who elect and those elected. In reality, voters are pretty down to earth. They want concrete improvements in their daily life: a job, decent housing, security in old age and when ill, good education for their children or feeling safe from crime and violence. Successful politician listen to their voters, identify the “bread and butter issues” and address them. They show that they can deliver the goods and render the services the voters want.
In practice, however, many politicians like to discuss endlessly about topics which are only of interest to the political class itself and the small highly sophisticated sector of society to which politicians normally belong. You are certainly familiar with the popular topics in the political class: changing certain clauses in the constitution, standing orders and procedures, car allowances and remuneration of public representatives or political intrigues.
Also consider how much time is spent on issues which are just interesting to small but vociferous communities: the environment, women’s liberation, minority rights, the values and principles in society and so on. To make it clear: there is nothing wrong with these topics. They have to be addressed at the appropriate time and a politician (and especially a liberal politician) cannot just speak about what the majority likes to hear.
But be aware that outside the more affluent sector of the population they have very little appeal to ordinary voters. Thus, if you want to be successful do not spend too much time on fringe issues or on the internal affairs of the political class. Focus upon the prime needs of the people. The best way to identify these needs is to read opinion polls carefully or to listen to the people by going to where they are and talk freely; find out about such places. They can be a market, a bus station, a school bazaar, a local pub or whatever.
Rule 5: Concentrate on three issues, which are of interest to your voters - and stick to them.
Often politicians overestimate the interest voters have in politics. While politicians are moving the whole day in the world of politics, for the average voter politics is only a small part of life - and normally not a particularly important one..
Voters simply do not have the time and the patience to follow politicians and listen to carefully worded and lengthy political speeches. Therefore a successful politician has to reduce the number of political messages. It is nice to have a whole political manifesto at your disposal. But remember that the attention span of the average voter is limited. He may give you just a few moments of his time but in these few moments you must be convincing.
So take three issues from your political manifesto. Select those ones, which are of concern to your voters. Choose at least one issue where you differ from your political opponents so that you have what in marketing is called a unique selling product. Build short messages for all three issues, which are emotional enough to touch the voters’ hearts and formulate them in such a way that they can be easily digested and memorized. From then on repeat your key messages time and again. Just as a successful company tries to plant a simple message into people's minds by repeating the same advertisement over a long period of time, a politician must concentrate on a few messages and hammer them into the electorate at every opportunity.
A politician has reached his purpose when the whole audience at a political meeting starts singing his messages like under a trance even before he opens his mouth! Do not be afraid of sounding too repetitive. Some politicians seem to assume that they have to be always innovative and must say something new every day. Nothing could be more erroneous.
Can you imagine that Coca-Cola, Nestlé or Volkswagen would say every day something different about their products? Consumers would be totally confused and none of the products would have a clear profile. Saying the same over and over again may be boring to you and your team, but be assured that what you may have heard hundreds of times, for most voters will still be new and they have to hear it anyway several times before they have internalized it.
Rule 6: Do not try to be everybody's darling. Nobody can give you more profile than your opponents.
Many politicians seem to enter politics not in order to fight, but to be applauded. They ignore that politics is a zero-sum-game: you can only win at the expense of your competitors. And you will only win, if you can convince the voters that you are better than your opponents are. It may therefore pay off to criticize those who are supporting your opponents or disliked by the voters.
If you want to perform successfully as a politician you must understand that society is composed of people and groups of people with different and often conflicting interests. There are people who will benefit from your policies and those who will lose. If you campaign against corruption those who benefit from corruption will automatically be against you. If you campaign for the privatization of public companies those who administer parastatals will most likely oppose you. If you want more flexible labor laws, trade unionists will attack you.
However, in politics it is important to understand that it is not a disadvantage to have political enemies. Keep in mind: it is often easier to wake up your opponents than to mobilize your supporters. But your opponents can become involuntarily your best allies. The more fiercely corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, trade unionists or others attack you, the more ordinary voters will accept that you are really fighting for their benefit against vested interests.
Nobody is more valuable than your opponents are when it comes to giving you credibility. If there are no opponents try to create some by provoking those who will anyway not vote for you. When you say that you fight corruption, people will at best smile and take it as one of the many promises politicians make. Yet, if powerful and entrenched well-known beneficiaries of corruption start attacking you, voters will suddenly begin to take you seriously.
Thus, if you play your cards right, your opponents will be your most credible and cheapest public relations agent. Therefore do not hesitate to choose “negative target groups” which you can tackle. Make it clear that these targets have good reason to be afraid of you being elected, because they are a burden upon ordinary people and prevent new jobs, decent housing, good education and the other prime needs people want to see satisfied.
Rule 7: Speak plainly, be straightforward, use examples - and avoid detail.
To many voters politicians seem to live on a remote planet. One of the reasons why politicians are perceived this way is their language. Politicians are living in two different worlds. On the one hand they are dealing with their peers, with civil servants, lobbyists, journalists or advisers. They discuss with people from the elite how they can solve a problem and which methods should be applied. This leads to a highly sophisticated debate with a lot of technical terms nobody outside of the inner circle understands.
Many politicians fail to grasp that the kind of political language, which may be necessary in committee meetings, is not the best vehicle to speak to the voters. Always keep in mind that if you want to communicate with people your language must be comprehensible to those whom you want to reach.
Political meetings are no place for rhetorical self-indulgence. Campaign pamphlets are not meant to prove to the voters how learned you are. Speak in simple terms! Use short sentences. Avoid complicated technical terms people cannot even pronounce, let alone understand. And make extensive use of pictures and examples, which ideally should come from daily life and do not need much translating.
Voters like politicians who are straightforward. They like politicians who do not get lost in confused and confusing details, but who are able to say what they want to achieve or have achieved without an obfuscating ocean of information. Tell people that you will decrease taxes - do not waste your time elaborating whose taxes you intend to cut when and by what percentage. Otherwise your key message that you will decrease taxes will get lost.
The more you go