Many top business executives think they know more about media, advertising, polling and every other aspect of running a campaign than specialists in their fields. They spend more time micromanaging the work of others than learning their real job, which is to be a superb political candidate. I was once called to the back room of a focus group and critiqued on how I was moderating the discussion by one such candidate. “You’re letting that person talk too much. You need to bring that person out more.” While an extraordinarily successful businessman, he lost three statewide races as a candidate.
You can read the business executive’s disease in election returns. The eminent political scientist V.O. Key wrote about “friends and neighbors” voting patterns decades ago. Successful political candidates rack up their largest margins in their home counties, their next largest margins in neighboring counties and their lowest margins in far-flung counties. That remains true today with fine politicians.
With top business executives, the pattern is often reversed. They get their largest margins in far-flung counties where voters only know them through television. They get their lowest margins among voters who actually know them. When those who know you the best like you the least, you have a serious problem as a candidate.
If you’re a business executive considering a run for office the good news is that what I’ve just described is an avoidable fate. I have worked with a number of business candidates who have become very successful politicians. The most recent example is Bill Haslam, the current governor of Tennessee, who ran a superb campaign. Like many successful business candidates for high office, Bill served first in a lower office as the accomplished mayor of Knoxville.
The key is confidence coupled with humility. Successful business candidates realize in their core that the office belongs to the people and that the people are giving them a great privilege by entrusting that office to them. They realize that trust must be earned and that their prior business success is insufficient to engender that trust.
In short, they understand the true meaning of “a public servant.” That goes a long way toward combating arrogance, demonstrating sincerity and earning trust.
Whit Ayres is president of North Star Opinion Research, co-founder of Resurgent Republic and chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants.