Due to the peculiarities of the Tennessee constitution, running for governor requires on-the-job training. Statewide candidates have never had any experience running statewide; there are no other statewide state offices.
So, as with most governors’ races, the Republican primary is populated by rookies. Neither Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Congressman Zach Wamp, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, nor Shelby DA Bill Gibbons has run from Mountain City to Memphis.
Some advice about modern campaigning, accumulated from my experience and from various political operatives of my acquaintance:
- Run an interstate campaign. The counties on either side of I-81, I-40, I-75, I-65 and I-24 contain the vast majority of the population of the state. This is no coincidence. The counties without access to an interstate, or at least a four-lane to it, are sparsely populated, have few good jobs, have lousy schools, and have miserable tax bases. They have no big contributors. You can forget about them. Every governor in Tennessee history has, both campaigning and governing, so why shouldn’t you? You need to run up and down the interstate, hit the population centers and the media markets. You can’t waste time going to Sneedville and Pall Mall. You’ll never have occasion to go see them after you’re elected, so why bother? These counties are only good for a photo-op in the event of a tornado. You also run the risk of getting lost.
- Never say anything funny. You are not allowed to have a sense of humor. Sarcasm? Forget it. Irony is totally banished. If you doubt it, write it down, see what it looks like on the page. Newspapers don’t use funny face emoticons. It will come back to bite you.
- There are certain special-interest groups that are one-issue voters. Unfortunately, they are cynical. You see, candidates always appeal to them and they have been lied to over and over again. In self defense, they have developed coded language, tortured syntax, and blood oaths with no wiggle room. For example: You don’t just say you are pro-life. If an abortionist ran for office in Tennessee, he would say he is pro-life. What they want to know is do you support SJR127. The only correct response from their point of view is yes. If you don’t know what SJR127 is, don’t waste your time.
- When you crack the code for various special-interest groups (anti-income tax, guns, and abortion), work up a flat statement of your position that includes the code words, has reassuring verbiage, and is not open to interpretation. It need not have anything to do with how you really feel, but do not EVER alter the language on the position under any circumstances. I know it gets tiresome. After giving six speeches a day being asked the same questions you will be tempted to vary your response, mostly because you are boring yourself to death. Don’t. There will be hell to pay. Reporters have also listened to the same boring speech over and over again. If you change it it’s a story. You have changed your position. Hey, you think they want to write the same old boring story about your same old boring speech? Do not, under any circumstances, engage in conversation about issues. You are not a conversationalist, you are a parrot.
- Don’t be surprised if you get ignored for months at a time. You get attention when you announce and for your first few fund-raisers. But the media moves on to other things. You will find at some point you can go to about any town and be unable to draw a crowd, much less a television camera. This has always been true, but it is especially true now that news organizations have drastically cut staffs. If you are going to say anything you hope to get coverage for, do it somewhere near the Capitol Hill press corps, or leak it to a blogger. Don’t worry, the press will show up again the last two weeks of the campaign.
So to summarize: In order to be elected you just need to run up and down the interstates being a humorless, pandering, parrot desperately seeking media attention.