5 Keys to Winning Big Against an Unbeatable Opponent

There’s no such thing as a sure thing in politics.

John Bel Edwards proved that on Saturday, November 21, 2015 when he beat David Vitter in a Runoff for the Governorship of Louisiana.

Edwards’ victory marks the first time since 2008 that a Democrat won a statewide race in Louisiana.

It’s also the first time a Democrat has won a governorship in a southern state other than Virginia since 2009.

John Bel Edwards did it facing U.S. Senator David Vitter who was the odds on favorite, having won re-election to the Senate by 19 percentage points in 2010.

David Vitter was considered unbeatable.

But come Election Day, Edwards beat Vitter 56% to 44%.

Such upsets are not surprising.  Politics is littered with them.

Bill Clinton beating George Bush in 1992, George W. Bush beating Al Gore in 2000, Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton in 2008.

The upset victory by John Bel Edwards in Louisiana came about no differently than those improbable victories.

How Edwards campaigned and won contains important lessons for any candidate running for office, especially against the so-called unbeatable opponent.

1. Stand with the Voters

Voters don’t elect people who are going to tell them how things need to be and how they should see the world.

Voters elect candidates who see the world similarly to how they see it.

Democrats in southern states frequently lose because they are labeled as “too liberal,” especially on hot button issues like abortion and gun rights.

Such views are not in sync with those held by the voters in these states and the liberal label can be the kiss of political death.

John Bel Edwards never allowed himself to be branded with that label.

He campaigned as Pro-Life and Pro-Second Amendment, lining himself up with the views of many Louisiana voters and taking away two points of attack from Vitter.

After taking those issues off the table, Edwards appealed to Democrats on issues of education and healthcare.

At the same time Louisiana has a $500 million budget deficit that’s being blamed on Republican Governor Bobby Jindal.

While the state’s budget woes stem from its dependance on energy production and the collapse of oil prices, voters don’t care.

They place blame on Bobby Jindal who sits in the Governor’s Office.

This coupled with the apparent hypocrisy about Republicans being better managers of budgets than Democrats, tanked Jindal’s approval rating to below 40% and gave Edwards a huge opening.

Edwards was able to take a more conservative stance on fiscal issues and contrast him with the “failure” of the Republican Administration.

This helped Vitter look a little less unbeatable.

2. Have A Good Story About Yourself

John Bel Edwards had a good story to tell.

He’s s West Point Graduate and former Army Ranger. He comes from a long line of small town sheriffs.  He’s a law and order man.

His resume helps him win votes.

Voters naturally think highly of someone who has served our nation in the military.

It gives a candidate an air of integrity about them and signals they have leadership skills.

Edwards told a story that made him appear both trustworthy and able to serve as the next Governor.

Voters might have started to think, “Is David Vitter really unbeatable?”

This Edwards campaign ad is a fantastic example of telling a candidates story and lining ones positions up with the voters.

3. Target Your Voters

Where ever you may be running for office, you need to know who your voters are and where to find them.

“Your Voters” are the people who agree with you on most of the issues.

Communicating with them early and often is key to getting them on your side and turning them out to vote.

The Edwards Campaign did this brilliantly.

Since this was a partisan race, the Edwards Campaign knew they had to win the support of Democrats and get them to vote.

The largest blocks of these voters resided in the parishes (or counties) that voted to re-elect Barack Obama as President in 2012.

Only 10 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes had voted for Obama three years ago, but that didn’t deter Team Edwards.

They campaigned hard in those 10 parishes knowing Edwards must have a commanding lead here to win statewide.

Team Edwards went after the crucial early voters.

Nationally, Democrats tend to comprise a larger block of early voters.

Edwards had to make sure the early voters were in his corner and got their ballots turned in.

A week before Election Day, 47,185 more Democrats had voted early than Republicans.

26% of the early votes came from the 10 key parishes Edwards needed to win overwhelmingly.

The unbeatable David Vitter was definitely in more trouble than people had thought.

4. Define Your Opponent

The Edwards campaign was able to define David Vitter in strong and contrasting terms as the following ad shows.

Vitter’s phone number was found in the records of a Washington, D.C. prostitute in 2007.

That combined with the vote Vitter missed to honor soldiers who died in action allowed Edwards to hammer Vitter for his indiscretions.

This took Vitter off message and he spent more time apologizing for his “very serious sin” than talking about what he wanted to do for Louisiana.

The contrast between the honorable solider and the sleazy politician couldn’t have been made more clear.

How could anyone have ever considered this guy to be unbeatable?

5. Undermine Your Opponent’s Base

Securing your own base is first and foremost when building a base of supporters for your election.

The Edwards Campaign did this brilliantly, locking up their 10 key precincts while turning Vitter’s likely supporters off.

This chipped away at the conservative values voters Vitter needed to win, along with elected officials.

Edwards picked up endorsements from Republican Lt. Governor Jay Dardeene and Legislative Republicans that Vitter needed.

With elected officials of his own party defecting, Vitter had little hope rallying the Republican faithful voters behind him.

As Edwards was building his base in the 10 pro-Obama parishes, Vitter’s base in the 54 precincts was collapsing.

Sometimes voters will hold their nose and vote for the lesser of two evils, but generally they prefer not to vote at all.

That became the final nail in David Vitter’s political coffin.

While Vitter narrowly won in the rest of the Louisiana, turnout in 31 of the 54 parishes that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 was down making  it impossible for him to overcome the supercharged turnout in Edwards’ 10-key parishes.

Edwards’ campaign was so successful in this regard that after the loss that the unbeatable David Vitter announced he would not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2016.