There’s nothing more annoying than hecklers or protestors disrupting a campaign event except, maybe, when those hecklers are high-profile surrogates for your opponent. It was a strategy Mitt Romney recently deployed in Florida, dispatching big-name backers – including Reps. Connie Mack (Fla.), Mary Bono Mack (Ca.) and Jason Chaffetz (Utah) – to attend rival Newt Gingrich’s campaign events.
Even Sen. John McCain and former Sen. George LeMieux (Fla.) considered the Romney camp’s antics bad form, but the crashers successfully forced the Gingrich campaign off message and garnered massive media attention. Down-ballot candidates took note, and the crashing tactic is sure to be imitated later this cycle.
Going forward, your campaign is better off figuring out how to mitigate your opponent’s tactics than whining about the unfairness of it all. Here are some rules to live by when confronting campaign crashers:
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I previously discussed the importance of a strong advance operation for any campaign, whether it be paid staff or a volunteer force. It’s situations like this that make advance crucial. A key task of your advance team should be to note any VIPs -- friend and foe -- in attendance and communicate that information back to the traveling staff. More often than not this simply allows your candidate to give some local dignitary or other a shout out, but in the case of a rival’s surrogate in attendance, being forewarned allows you to prep your candidate, arm your press secretary with relevant talking points and formulate a plan to neutralize the opposition and prevent disruption of the event.
A crasher should be able to surprise your campaign exactly once. If your campaign is being routinely caught off guard by opponents’ surrogates—as the Gingrich team was—the first thing to do is tighten your advance operation.
Know thy enemy. Knowledge is power, and you can be sure that any campaign crasher will be well armed with talking points to use against your candidate and will target reporters attending the event. It’s essential that your campaign, particularly anyone talking to the press, have opposition research at his or her fingertips to be deployed in the event of a confrontation. Arm your press secretary with one-pagers to distribute to assembled reporters that debunk your opponents’ claims and highlight your candidate’s competitive advantages.
Keep your eye on the ball. Your campaign’s public events have two target audiences: undecided voters and the press. With rare exceptions, no one else matters—to focus firepower elsewhere is wasted time and effort. When your campaign is facing a challenging situation like this one, your field team should focus solely on ensuring assembled voters have a positive interaction with your candidate, and your press team should move to corral reporters and avoid process talk. Reporters rarely write about issues when they can write a juicy process story instead.
Case in point: the Gingrich campaign won nothing but an embarrassing news cycle when a campaign spokesman engaged directly with one of the Romney crashers, providing a sort of spectator sport for reporters. The media coverage focused wholly on the confrontation rather than on either campaign’s message.
Keep calm and carry on. The worst possible outcome for your campaign is for your candidate to directly engage with the crashers in any way. As a rule, the only person your candidate should ever confront in an adversarial way is a fellow candidate. You can be assured that the crashers will be taking video, and they’d love nothing more than some footage of your candidate getting down and dirty.
Now, if your boss is the famously bombastic Newt, you many not have a choice. But most of us aren’t shepherding presidential contenders and American political icons, and thus should be able to school candidates to keep their cool, do their best to ignore any disruption, and if the situation becomes un-ignorable, be friendly and treat the crasher as just another attendee, and then get on with the program.
Frame it your way. The Romney run-ins were endlessly dissected in the media, and the armchair quarterbacking occupied the punditry for days. So you can be sure that your campaign will get its chance to respond in the press, which you can use to your advantage. The proper response depends on the identity of the crasher and the campaign that sent them. The most effective of the Gingrich camp’s varied responses were those that scoffed at the desperation of a supposed frontrunner sending polo shirt-clad members of Congress to stir up trouble at suburban rallies.
Unfortunately, the famously inconsistent Gingrich campaign undercut that message when their own surrogate subsequently crashed a Romney event, but that’s another story. The takeaway remains that if the crashers represent a true rival, then the spin is that the campaign must be in trouble to be trying Hail Mary tactics.
If, as more often is the case, the invaders are representing a lesser-known candidate trying to punch his or her way up, get some valuable earned media, and spook your candidate, then its time to be gracious and take the line that you welcome so-and-so to the conversation, you look forward to seeing him or her on the campaign trail, and you hope you can proceed with civility and respect.
When rival campaigns use asymmetrical tactics like sending in high-profile crashers, it’s easy to feel outraged and want to go to war, and that’s exactly what your opponent wants you to do. Instead, keep your cool, run a tight ship and stay focused on what matters. Like a schoolyard bully, they will quickly lose interest when they fail to get a rise out of your team.
Amelia Chassé is an account director at Hynes Communications, where she advises political campaigns, corporations and advocacy organizations on new media strategy. A veteran of campaigns at the state, local and presidential levels, she currently resides in New Hampshire.