How to Beat an Incumbent

by Joe Garecht

Facing an election against an entrenched incumbent is a daunting prospect.  Depending on their office, incumbents have lots of advantages – name recognition, patronage jobs, taxpayer-funded mailings and increased fundraising ability, just to name a few.  Starting an election as a challenger to one of these incumbents may seem impossible.  Certainly, running for an open seat is often easier, but beating an incumbent is possible, if you start early, define your opponents, draw a contrast, and define the agenda.

Start Early

Most office-holders are in perpetual campaign mode.  After winning an election, they immediately start planning for and campaigning for their re-election bid.  Many challengers make the error of waiting until the “traditional” election season to begin their campaigns.  Don’t make this mistake. 

For a challenger, there’s no such thing as too early to start campaigning.  Even though the voters will not yet have the election on their minds, get started as soon as you can.  Not only can you plan and research your campaign during this time, you can actually start pressing the flesh, attending meetings and building your organization.  Your incumbent opponent will have already started to get his name in the papers and into the minds of the voters – you should too.

Define Your Opponent

When challenging an incumbent, it is imperative that your campaign defines your opponent before he gets a chance to define himself.  Carefully research his record and develop your message early.  Get out ahead of the curve and define your opponent in terms that are favorable to you. 

For example, if you are running for mayor against a liberal who has increased the city’s spending 35% since taking office, take every chance you can to hammer that point home.  Challenge every spending increase, put out literature laying out the supporting statistics, write op-ed pieces calling for a budget review.  In short, define your opponent as the “spender.”  Make him defend those budget increases, in effect admitting that he is a big spender.  Just be sure to do thorough research on the issue before putting the message out.

Draw a Contrast

After defining your opponent, draw a sharp contrast between your candidate and the incumbent.  There’s only one reason why people vote an incumbent out of office: they find someone better.  You have to present the voters with a better alternative to your opponent.  Show them why your candidate is different, clearly different, and why that difference makes him a superior choice.

Define the Agenda

This goes hand in hand with defining your opponent.  Given the chance, your opponent will turn the election into a showcase of his strengths and your weaknesses.  For instance, if he is strong on the issue of education, he may try to make this election about who can do a better job improving the city’s schools.  Your job is to beat him to the punch by defining the agenda in a way favorable to your candidate. 

Was your candidate a former federal prosecutor and municipal judge?  After researching the issues important to the voters in your district, and your opponent’s weaknesses, you may want to make this election about crime.  Ask the voters who will do a better job making the community safe.  Force your opponent to talk about crime and safety.  Define the agenda.

Beating an incumbent is possible with hard work and preparation.  Get out there early, and set the tone for the election.  Show the voters that there is a clear distinction between you and your opponent on an issue you define.  Tell them why you are the stronger candidate, and work hard to get your message to the voters.

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