“How to Win an Election” is a little primer, published by Princeton University Press, that flew out of bookstores just in time for Tuesday’s election. The bright red cover reminded some older purchasers of Chairman Mao’s famous “little red book” of a generation ago. Several hundred copies seem to have found their way to President Obama’s election headquarters in Chicago.
Not that the Obama campaign actually took any of the advice about how to lie, exaggerate and make promises impossible to keep. “If a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep,” the author advises, “he wouldn’t have many friends.” Candidates are told that “there are three things that will guarantee you votes in an election: favors, hope and personal attachment.” Also this: “Know the weaknesses of your opponents — and exploit them.”
The primer, subtitled “An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians,” was written more than 2,000 years ago by Quintus Tullius Cicero for his brother Marcus Cicero, the famed orator, who was a candidate for consul of Rome in 64 B.C., but you would have to be a resident of Mars or maybe Pluto not to see its modern relevance. There’s even a book-jacket blurb by Karl Rove. Quintus Cicero shows himself to be a master political strategist of oppositional research, organization and turnout.
The little book, translated from Latin to vernacular English by Philip Freeman, should remain on the desks of office-seekers for the next four years, its principles underlined. Candidates are told to “make good use of young people who admire you and want to learn from you, in addition to all the faithful friends who are daily at your side.”
Mitt Romney might wince at this: “You have excellent manners and are always courteous, but can be rather stiff at times. You definitely need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.” Successful politicians cultivate a good memory and have learned this bit of wisdom: “First, nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces.”
A few days before the election, a young friend told me of having met Barack Obama, then a mere U.S. senator, at a Washington restaurant. When he saw her again a year later, he called her by name and recalled where they had met. She was ready to follow him to the ends of the earth, or more to the point, to the White House, twice.
These Roman insights into campaign politics acknowledge the obvious — that politics is a treacherous sport. Quintus Cicero reminds his brother to cultivate his skill as a speaker, and this is good advice “going forward” (in the new cliche) for Mr. Obama. It became clear in his second campaign that his rhetorical abilities had grown stale. He had become lazy, depending on his teleprompter, and his performance in the first debate could have cost him re-election. He had forgotten how to think on his feet, but as Mr. Romney soon saw, the president is a quick learner.
The hindsight squad already is examining every quirk and turn in the campaign, and it is learning that the president and his team played the game better than Mr. Romney. There are lessons for Republicans and conservatives here that can’t be learned in books. Every inch of the campaign must be examined to see how and why a stiff candidate the public finally warmed to and embraced with enthusiasm finally lost.
The conventional wisdom points to the changing demographics in the country, the growing diversity and the “browning” of America. According to exit polls reported by The Wall Street Journal, white voters, who accounted for 87 percent of the electorate in 1992, made up just 72 percent this year. Hispanics, on the other hand, had grown from 2 percent of the vote to 10 percent.
Many women, who would have had much to gain from a steady hand on the economy, refused to accept the fact, backed by statistics, that women now compete on an equal footing with men, and the remaining disparity in their incomes comes largely from their own choices, not employer discrimination. They’re reluctant to give up their training wheels.
“The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you,” Quintus Cicero wrote to his brother 20 centuries ago. “On the other hand, you should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or to the people. Stick to vague generalities.” The Republicans should hire this guy.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.