5 Winning Lessons from Political Campaign Mastermind Arthur Finkelstein

One of the most successful political strategists of contemporary American politics passed away Friday — Arthur Finkelstein. If you’ve never heard of Arthur, don’t worry about it. That’s the way Arthur liked it. The spotlight belonged to his candidates. He worked entirely behind the scenes. And the work he did there won a lot of elections.

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I didn’t meet Arthur Finkelstein until 8 years ago. I didn’t even know he existed until then. I had the privilege of working under him on two congressional campaigns. While I was already a campaign consultant in my own right, being on those campaigns was akin to a graduate program in political strategy taught by Arthur.

This past weekend as I read the various articles about his career and his passing, I realized just how much I had learned at the feet of this political campaign mastermind in brief time I worked under his guidance.

Many of those winning lessons are ones that I share with you in my regular articles. While I already had many of these skills and tactics in my wheelhouse, it was Arthur Finkelstein who influenced me in ways that both sharpened my campaign abilities and added to the tools at my disposal for my candidates.

In honor of Arthur’s work and immense campaign success, here’s 5 winning lessons you can take from him and apply to your own campaigns.

(All of the quoted material unless otherwise noted is from either The Washington Post or New York Times obituaries of Arthur Finkelstein.)

1. Keep Your Message Simple

“Mr. Finkelstein was considered a master at developing simple campaign messages…”

Yep. Arthur always kept it simple. He didn’t get complicated. He didn’t get lost in the weeds. His candidates had clear messages.

I get a fair amount of blow back from some people who think I oversimplfy campaigns this way. The truth is I’m merely tailoring my message to impact voters by understanding human psychology.

Arthur Finkelstein helped his candidates win this way decades for Facebook and 24 hour cable news.

Having a clear and simple campaign message is even more important today than it was then.

“In 1994, Mr. Finkelstein was the driving force behind Republican George E. Pataki’s upset victory over New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and devised the campaign’s inescapable slogan: “Too liberal for too long.””

2.Wash, Rinse, Repeat

“…which were repeated in such a steady barrage…”

Repetition is the key to success in all marketing campaigns — including political campaigns.

You have to repeat your message over and over and over again if you expect it to stick with people.

That’s the only way the voters are going to realize your virtues and your opponents weaknesses. They’re very busy and extremely distracted.  You must repeat your message until they know your message as well as you do.

3. Negative Campaigning Works

“… of negative television commercials that he was sometimes called the “merchant of venom.”

All right. Nobody wants to be labeled as the “merchant of venon” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go negative on your campaign if you need to.

A lot of candidates refuse to go on the attack. They think it will make them look bad and lose their election.

If they don’t go negative when they need to they’ll look bad, but because they lost the election.

But going negative isn’t a bad thing. It’s more of a service to the voters. They need to know the shortcomings of your opponent.

And if you’re not going to tell the voters, then who do you think will?

“(Arthur) refused to acknowledge, though, that he engaged in negative campaigning. That phrase connotes false accusations, he said, when “it just means that you speak about the failings of your opponent as opposed to the virtues of your candidate.”

4. Find the Issues That Matter

Most candidates talk about the same issues, even candidates running against each other. One will be for and one will be against it.

They always think they’re talking about what the voters care about. It’s not always the truth.

Winning candidates find out what issue or issues really matter to the voters. They discover what things make voters anxious, scared, or angry.

Then they talk about those that issue or issue and their plan to fix it. That’s what Arthur helped Ronald Reagan do in 1976.

As Craig Shirley wrote earlier this year in National Review, Reagan’s primary challenge to President Gerald Ford was falling apart. But then Arthur Finkelstein arrived in North Carolina:

Finkelstein scripted the Reagan effort, helped unearth the Panama Canal treaties as a sleeper issue, wrote the TV and radio spots, and had (Senator Jesse) Helms’s young aide Carter Wrenn go out to county courthouses and — something unheard of in national politics at the time — cobble together a mailing list of 110,000 Republican primary voters in the state.

Reagan, in one of the biggest upsets in American politics, won the North Carolina primary, re-energizing his campaign for the second half of the contest before the GOP convention in Kansas City. Reagan lost to Ford by the narrowest of delegate margins, 1,187 to 1,070. Ford had all the power of incumbency on his side, while Reagan had only himself and a handful of loyal conservatives such as Finkelstein.

Though Reagan lost in Kansas City, he went on to win the hearts and minds of Republicans nationwide, winning the 1980 nomination and then beating Jimmy Carter in a historic landslide that changed the world. Without that win in North Carolina in 1976, none of that future Reagan history would have happened.

5. Don’t Stereotype Voters

I recently wrote that you should not stereotype voters. You should never believe because they fit into a certain demographic that they think or believe a certain thing about any particular issue.

“When he began his career in politics, he used polling results to build campaign themes around voters’ social, financial and emotional needs.”

People are more nuanced than that. Arthur knew it. That’s how he was able to help elect Republicans in areas that should have only been electing Democrats.

Arthur’s candidates won because he looked deeper at what party people were registered to vote, saw what mattered to them. That became the key to his messaging strategy.

“I have been criticized for 20 years for running ideologically arched campaigns,” he told the National Conservative Political Action Conference in 1991. “I plead guilty. I will continue to run ideologically arched campaigns as long as there are more conservatives than there are liberals, rather than more Democrats than there are Republicans.”

Now if the fact that the most successful Republican consultant of the last half century was a happily married gay man doesn’t convince you of the danger of political stereotyping, I doubt anything ever will.

Rest in peace Arthur. I’m glad to have known you and to have learned from you.