It happens time and time again: a business executive announces a campaign for governor or senator or president. They raise more money and spend more money than any of their competitors. And then they lose. What’s going on?
Running a successful political campaign looks so easy to those who have never done it. Having worked with a number of business candidates over the years—and having observed many more—I think they lose for three reasons.
1. Losing business executives cannot make the transition from hiring people to asking to be hired. Top business executives spend most of their careers hiring people, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, assessing how they will fit into their organizations, and determining whether they will be loyal, competent and committed employees. But running for office means asking other people to hire them. Moreover, the other people they are asking are usually less knowledgeable, less accomplished and certainly less wealthy than they are. Most business executives simply cannot bring themselves to do this genuinely and sincerely.
The business executive’s message often comes across to voters as: “I don’t need this job, but I am willing to make the personal sacrifice required to serve. I hope you are smart enough to realize how fortunate you are that I am willing to do so.”
The reaction of voters to this message: “What a jerk!”
2. Losing business executives believe you buy knowledge rather than acquire it. When business executives need accounting knowledge, they hire an accountant. When they need engineering knowledge, they hire an engineer. When they need legal knowledge, they hire a lawyer.
But political candidates need to acquire knowledge themselves rather than rely on others to supply it for them. During a debate, a candidate can’t call for a lifeline. “I’d consult with my advisors” is not exactly a confidence-building response. And when addressing a group of donors, candidates must be able to answer probing questions about their vision and their goals.
Successful political candidates for high office usually come across as deeply knowledgeable about important issues facing the state or nation. That takes either experience dealing with those issues in lower office, or disciplined learning before running for higher office. For people who have spent their careers hiring rather than acquiring knowledge, that disciplined learning, those hours spent reading and talking to experts, that time spent thinking about public policy is often a major challenge.
3. Losing business executives are arrogant. Extremely successful business executives get told every day how smart they are, how successful they are, and how much better they are than other people. That leads to an arrogance that comes back to bite them as political candidates. Top business executives tend to grossly underestimate how difficult it is to become a good political candidate. Too often, they look down on politicians as second-rate people who would be doing something more lucrative if only they could. I once heard a business candidate comment dismissively about one of the most successful governors his state had ever had. “I’m worth 10 times what he’s worth,” this candidate said. Not surprisingly, he lost.
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.