By Frank Blechman
I have never been a long-distance runner, although I have a lot of friends who have taken up the sport. I have watched long-distance foot races at many different distances and levels. Before, during, and after, the questions of strategy always emerge. Should I try to take the lead early?
Or, should I pace myself and then sprint at the end? Do I need to keep up with the favorites or the leaders, or should I run my own race?
The questions persist because there are no right answers. Most runners have a preferred style, but each race has its own dynamic, so runners always have to adjust.
Electoral politics suits the long-distance race metaphor particularly well. It goes on for a long time. It takes many different kinds of resources and resiliencies (physical and mental) to handle the changing challenges as the event moves from one stage to another. And, just like a physical race, contenders’ abilities are tested by the abilities and strategies of their opponents.
It is the same story in just about every element of life. To succeed at just about anything, I believe, requires honesty (this always has to come first), a sense of humor (for when the unexpected happens), and the ability to count backwards (to plan back from the future). Electoral politics suits the long-distance race metaphor particularly well. It goes on for a long time. It takes many different kinds of resources and resiliencies (physical and mental) to handle the changing challenges as the event moves from one stage to another. And, just like a physical race, contenders’ abilities are tested by the abilities and strategies of their opponents.
As a running coach and as a political consultant, I have generally advised folks to run their own race. Keep an eye on what others are doing, but never try to be somebody you are not. This is hard for any competitive person, and especially tough in a “big” race when a lot of people are watching and where a reputation can be made or broken.
This brings me to the current contest for governor of Virginia. When Terry McAuliffe lost the Democratic primary nomination for governor in 2009, he began a four-year-long campaign to run (and win) in 2013. He traveled all over the Commonwealth. He helped dozens of candidates raise money and build campaigns. He established relationships and earned trust. Although he could not run for reelection in 2017, he spent his time in the governor’s mansion nurturing relationships, not just for the immediate tasks, but for the future. Once out of office, he never stopped running.
The 2021 cycle got serious right after the 2020 election when candidates officially filed for 2021. McAuliffe’s experience in politics told him to count backwards. As the front runner, he needed to pace himself so that he had plenty of resources for the endgame. He could let others do their thing, while he ran his race. However, the competitive part of Terry McAuliffe told him to never let a challenger get ahead. Those dueling strategies have been the story of this campaign.
After winning the nomination in May, Glenn Youngkin continued to maintain an active campaign schedule with heavy television buys all through June. He beefed up his campaign team. With plenty of money, he hired pollsters, researchers, and field staff to improve his intelligence. McAuliffe, saving his dollars, did not respond immediately, although he did issue media statements rebutting each of his opponent’s public claims. But by July, with polling showing Youngkin closing in, McAuliffe felt he had to respond in kind. Since then, both candidates have maintained a constant paid media presence, spending millions with new messages every week designed to neutralize whatever the other was doing or saying. Both used surrogates effectively. While the polling is mixed, the media is calling the race “neck-and-neck,” implying that anyone could win.
Of course, anything can happen. Either campaign could stumble. Either could get caught on a hot mic saying something foolish they never intended to broadcast. Either could suffer illness or injury. Virginia could be hit by a meteor.
Well of course, anything can happen. Either campaign could stumble. Either could get caught on a hot mic saying something foolish they never intended to broadcast. Either could suffer illness or injury. Virginia could be hit by a meteor.
Likely, the race will not come down to turnout on November 2. With many if not most votes cast in advance, the events and decisions of the last two weeks of the campaign will matter less this year than they would have in the past. Youngkin has essentially unlimited money and almost surely will outspend McAuliffe, no matter how much Terry raises. Nonetheless, this is where budgeting backwards matters. If McAuliffe has not reserved enough to communicate through all of October, Youngkin could win.
As I leave Virginia this week, I will watch from afar. This is my last column for VoxFairfax. My parting words are as follows:
This business of politics is a long-distance race, not a sprint.
Although candidates will always claim that ‘this election is the most important (of my lifetime, of your lifetime, ever), there will always be another election in Virginia next year.
Policies made, and gains won or lost, can be reversed next year.
And as Thomas Jefferson supposedly said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” (Most scholars agree that this phrase did not come from Jefferson, though it has often been attributed to him.)
[Editors’ Note: We at VoxFairfax have been fortunate to have had the benefit of Mr. Blechman’s musings, and will miss his insights. He is always welcome to contribute long-distance.]