One of the most important things winning candidates do is successfully define themselves to the voters.
Who they are. What they stand for. What they want to do.
This is true in all successful political campaigns.
In a contested election where at least one of your opponents has significant support — or where a large plurality of voters remains undecided —- not only will you need to define yourself, but you’ll improve your chances of winning by clearly defining at least one of your opponents.
The best way to do this — without going negative — is by sending a candidate comparison mailer to the voters.
A candidate comparison mailer allows you to highlight your strengths as a candidate and contrast them against your opponents shortcomings.
I’ve produced effective comparison pieces for a number of candidates and have seldom seen them fail.
Last year I consulted on a city council race in the City of Riverside California.
Chuck Conder hired me as the lead strategist for his campaign for Riverside’s 4th City Council Ward.
The seat was held by a two-term incumbent named Paul Davis.
Davis defeated the ward’s previous councilmember for the ward 8 years before.
Before ballots were mailed, out a significant number of voters in the district remained undecided and we decided to send a comparison piece to likely voters.
Here’s the mailer that was sent:
Chuck Conder is today a member of the Riverside City Council.
Chuck stayed competitive with Davis on fundraising but outdistanced the incumbent in precinct walking.
Both factors played a big part in his success, as did the mailers he sent — especially the comparison piece.
The mailer did what it was supposed to do.
It defined Chuck Conder as the person best suited to represent his community on the City Council, while contrasting him with his opponent.
On Election Day Chuck Conder won with 54.15% of the vote.
A well designed, effective comparison piece could have the same result for you if you follow these 7 Simple Rules.
1. Make your comparison piece appear neutral
This is the one time you’re not going to be overtly promoting yourself in your campaign materials.
You’re not going to ask for a vote nor are you going to broadcast your name big and loud on the comparison piece.
If you do, the voters will become skeptical of the comparison’s legitimacy and won’t read it.
Your goal is to have as many voters read the comparison as possible and effectively lead them to the conclusion that you are the person they should be electing.
2. Feature a good picture of your opponent
Putting a good picture of yourself on your mailers is a no-brainer.
Putting a good picture of your opponent on a mailer will go against your best instincts.
Do it anyways.
Remember, the comparison piece needs to appear neutral.
Including a bad or ugly picture of your opponent will destroy that illusion, so use the best picture of your opponent you can find, but please make sure yours is better.
This photo of Paul Davis is obviously not the best, but it is the one he sent to the local newspaper touse for his head shot.
If Davis thought it was good enough for the paper, then it was good enough for this comparison piece.
3. Always place your picture, name, and winning issues first
We read English left to right and voters will do the same with the comparison piece, whether they read each comparison topic across from you to your opponent, or whether they read your column and winning issues first, then get to your opponents’ side.
You always want to put yourself first.
Why? Because you’re putting yourself first in the minds of the voters you are communicating with.
Subconsciously you want them to think of you first because first is where you want to end up when the polls close.
4. Use only information that presents you in the best light, but doesn’t do the same for your opponent
The issues you choose to compare yourself against your opponent with, should be winning issues for you.
The voters should read the comparison piece and think to themselves, “this is the candidate I agree with most,” “this is the candidate who’s most qualified,” or most importantly “this is the candidate I like most.”
If your opponent is stronger on a certain issue than you are, that’s probably an issue to leave off the comparison piece.
Likewise, if your opponent has a better ballot title or has a job that resonates more emotionally with the voters, don’t include such designations.
Examples of this would be running against someone whose title might be “teacher,” “police officer,” “nurse,” “firefighter,” or “retired military” when yours is “business owner,” “attorney,” “vice president” or something of that nature.
In such match ups it’s best to just go with your name and their name.
For the record, “business owner” is always better than “businessman/businesswoman/businessperson.”
And we all know what the voters think of a “politician.”
5. Compare no more than five issues
Your natural tendency will be to show how you are different or better than your opponent in every way.
Resist this impulse at all cost.
Most voters don’t want to know everything about you and where you stand on every issue.
They only want to know enough about you and where you stand on important issues to feel comfortable enough giving you their vote.
That’s why I’m a huge proponent of candidates having a Three Point Plan.
When it comes to doing a candidate comparisons, don’t include more than five comparison fields on your mailer.
I’ve done comparison pieces with as few as three comparison topics and even with only one comparison topic — when that one contrasting issue was enough to sway the majority of voters to my candidate.
6. Keep the issue statements as short as possible
People are being overloaded with information.
There’s too much to read and they are not going to read anything they don’t have to.
And guess what? They don’t have to read political mail.
Therefore you must incentivize them to read your comparison piece by keeping the information about you and your opponent as short and sweet as possible.
The more words you use, the less likely the voters will read your mailer.
But if you convey the information as briefly and as concisely as you can, you’ll increase your chances that they’ll read the whole thing, which again increases your chances of earning their votes.
7. Always tell the truth about your opponent
The one thing that has made the comparison pieces I’ve created for my candidates the most effective is the sourcing that’s included.
Voters expect political candidates to say horrible things about each other, that’s why you break through that by creating the appearance that this mailer is neutral.
You drive that point home by including sources to everything you’ve said about yourself and your opponent.
This adds tremendous credibility to the mailer and once again works into your favor for earning votes from those who receive the piece.
But don’t think you can simply footnote any sources you wish or make things up.
Some voters will go online and research your claims and your sources. If they don’t exist or say something different, you could have a big problem on your hands.
If you fabricate information or drastically distort any facts, your opponent will have a field day at your expense. They may even get the media involved.
If that happens your comparison mailer will have backfired and cost you votes.
So always tell the truth on the comparison piece and back it up with genuine sources.
Print those sources and keep them on file.
Or have them in a note on your iPhone so you can pull the info up ASAP.
That way if the press does call you can site your sources and send them the back up.
Remember, reporters tend to be lazy, overworked, or both.
Make their jobs easy and do the legwork for them by having your backup sources available to send to them.
If you follow these seven steps, I believe you can create an effective candidate comparison for your campaign that can help you win your election.
While the example above only features two candidates, comparison pieces work when there are three or four candidates in a hotly contested election.
That said, I wouldn’t compare more than four candidates and have personally never sent one out with more than three candidates on it.
And while this example is of a campaign mailer, you can use it in emails and social media posts.
You can also adapt it for radio, television and video ads.
The candidate comparison works regardless of what office you are seeking – City Council, School Board, Water Board, State Legislature, U.S Congress, you name it.
Candidate comparisons work because you’re doing the work for the voter. You’re making it easier for them to make a decision on who to vote for.
And when you make it easier for the voter to decide in your favor, you tremendously increase your chances of winning big on Election Night.
Please note, campaign disclosure and disclaimer requirements vary state to state, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Please ensure that your campaign mailers and advertisements comply with the laws for the area where you are running for office.