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 number of voters are undecided —- you not only need to define yourself, but you need to define your opponent as well.
The best way to do this — without going negative — is by making a candidate comparison.
A candidate comparison can be done as a mailer, in a video, or in an online image.
The comparison mailer allows you to highlight your strengths as a candidate and contrast them against your opponent’s shortcomings.
I’ve produced effective comparison pieces for a number of candidates and have seldom seen them fail.
In 2017, I consulted Chuck Conder in his city council race in the City of Riverside California.
Riverside’s 4th Ward City Council seat was held by a two-term incumbent named Paul Davis.
Davis defeated the ward’s previous councilmember for the ward 8 years before.
While Davis had his detractors in the ward, he also had solid support as the incumbent.
What we decided to focus on was the significant number of voters in the district remained undecided.
We did this with a candidate comparison that was mailed to all likely voters.
Here’s the mailer that was sent:
And how did things work out?
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 candidate comparison 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.
An effective candidate comparison could have the same result for you if you follow these 7 Simple Rules.
1. Make your candidate comparison 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 pay attention to it.
Your goal is to subtly but effectively lead voters to the conclusion that you are the person they should be electing.
2. Feature a good picture of your opponent
Using good pictures of yourself in your campaign is a no-brainer.
Using good pictures of your opponent will go against your best instincts.
Do it anyways.
Remember, the candidate comparison needs to appear neutral.
Including a bad or ugly picture of your opponent will destroy that illusion
Therefore, 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 to use for his headshot.
If Davis thought it was good enough for the paper, then it was good enough for the candidate comparison.
3. Always put 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.
The same is true if you make the candidate comparison a video.
Always 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 see the comparison 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 out of the comparison.
Likewise, if your opponent has a better 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 matchups, it’s best to just go with your name and their name and leave off titles.
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.
I’ve done candidate comparison 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.
Make it simple to pay attention and understand what you’re telling them.
Keep the information about you and your opponent as short and sweet as possible.
The more words you use, the less likely the voters will pay attention to you.
But if you convey the information as briefly and as concisely as you can, you’ll increase your chances that they’ll pay attention to the comparison, 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.
But you can breakthrough that by creating the appearance that your comparison is neutral.
You then drive that point home by including sources to everything you’ve said about yourself and your opponent.
This adds tremendous credibility to the candidate comparison.
And that works s into your favor for earning votes from those who see the comparison.
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 will have backfired and cost you votes.
So always tell the truth on in your candidate comparison 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 cite your sources and send them the backup.
Remember, reporters, tend to be lazy and often overworked.
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 the above 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.