By Frank Blechman
My first serious excursion into politics came in 1960 when I canvassed for Jack Kennedy in Virginia. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was young and so was he. He seemed like a real change from grandpa Eisenhower.
So, one day I went down to the local campaign office to volunteer. I was given some literature, and a deck of index cards (there were no computer lists or pocket-phone systems then) with names & addresses written on them, and was told to go out, knock on every door, talk to everybody, hand out literature and bring back information on the cards about support for our guy.
Two hours later, I came back in pretty discouraged.
“How did it go?” the supervisor asked.
“Not good,” I reported. “I visited all 100 houses. I talked with about 40 people, but I only found two who are supporting Kennedy.”
“That’s great!” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I only found TWO supporters.”
“Well,” he went on, “we didn’t have two supporters in that neighborhood before.”
“Yes, but it was only two. We’re not going to win.” I wailed.
The supervisor was very old and wise, maybe 18 or 19, much older than I was. Impatiently, he said, “Listen (kid), I’ll tell you the secret of politics.”
“The great problem in politics is that it is hard to know what is really going on out there. People say all kinds of things, sometimes what they think you want to hear. But when they get into the voting booth, they don’t always do what they said.”
I not only shut up, I took out my pencil to take notes.
He went on, “The great problem in politics is that it is hard to know what is really going on out there. People say all kinds of things, sometimes what they think you want to hear. But when they get into the voting booth, they don’t always do what they said.”
“It’s even worse for some candidates.” He added. “They talk to their friends and supporters and think ‘Gee. Everybody agrees with me. They all like me. This is easier than I thought.’ When they lose the election, they aren’t just disappointed, they’re surprised. They don’t know what happened. They can run as many times as they want. They never win.”
“The secret of politics,” he paused for emphasis, “… is not lying to yourself.”
I was dumbfounded. “That’s it?” I thought.
He concluded, “So, the night before an election, you should write down a number of how many votes you think you (or your candidate) are going to get. You can predict the number for your precinct, or your city or whatever unit you want. Then in a few days when the results are in, compare your number with the real one. If you are within 10%, plus or minus, you’re doing fine. You know what’s going on and you’re not lying to yourself. Even if you only got a few votes this time, eventually you will connect with the voters and win.”
At the time, it didn’t make much sense.
Since then I have been in over 100 campaigns. I have often (not always) done the exercise the night before the election, and it has always been helpful, in the long run. I have even pressed campaigns to do this: make a pool of it. Staff and volunteers seal their number in envelopes with a $5 bill. The guess that gets closest takes the pot.
I recommend that you do this yourself this year. On November 2, write down your number. Later, compare it to the real results. If you were with 10% (+ or -) you can play neighborhood pundit with a lot more confidence. You know what is going on out there. And, you’re not lying to yourself. Maybe, you just got lucky. But maybe, you know the great secret of politics.