In Praise of Candidates (and Their Friends and Families)

Election Day is four days away, and many of us have already voted by mail. For the candidates, their families, close friends, and avid supporters, the end of a marathon looms — but in some ways it’s uphill to the finish line.

I’ve never been a candidate for political office, as candidates and officials sometimes remind me, when they don’t like what I write. But I’ve managed a few campaigns and staffed several others. I’ve advised numerous actual and potential candidates, and analyzed and commented on far too many issues and races (some would say). I’ve also lived with a candidate a couple of times — that is, I’ve lived with her for nearly 30 years, and she’s run for office a couple of times (and won).

So I have a lively appreciation for the look and feel of campaigns from the inside at this point in the election cycle — perhaps not for all candidates in all elections, but for many.

Barbara Christiansen (left), Jeff Shorter, Kyle Barratt, Staci Carroll

Barbara Christiansen (left), Jeff Shorter, Kyle Barratt, Staci Carroll

Exhaustion and Its Fruits

The dominant theme is exhaustion, and it’s not the kind you can sleep off in an afternoon or a weekend. Most local candidates aren’t bouncing among media interviews at a dizzying pace or trying to visit 15 key states in the last 72 hours. But they had jobs and busy lives before they filed for office, and they still do, and they’ve been piling campaign activities on top of those schedules and squeezing them into all the cracks.

If you’ve ever worked passionately for a candidate, you’ve felt this to some degree, but it’s more pronounced for the candidates themselves. So is everything else — including the strain on world views and personal relationships.

Chronic exhaustion often breeds paranoia, even in otherwise mature and stable adults. It gets easier and easier, as Election Day approaches, to believe that everyone who isn’t giving you full-throated support is actively undermining you. Or that the spouse you snapped at this morning (who snapped back at you) is secretly planning to vote for your opponent tomorrow. An editorial or blog post or tweet that doesn’t go quite your way could be reasonable enough, but you in these last days of the campaign you may detect deep-rooted bias against you. Things people do, which have nothing to do with you or your race, start to look like part of the vast opposition arrayed against you. And if the weather goes wrong or you catch a cold, so you have to shorten your speech or knock on fewer doors, you may even begin to wonder if God himself is pulling for the other guy.

It gets worse. There’s little time for second-guessing at this stage, and no profit in it, but candidates and their people do it anyway. If only I’d said this or hadn’t said that, or realized the importance of an issue earlier in the campaign. If only I’d knocked on a few more doors or sent out one more flier or . . . What if I lose by one vote, because I forgot to ask my elderly neighbors if they need a ride to the polls?

Exhaustion saps our strength to resist the second-guessing too, especially our own.

And even before this next pathology took over our national politics, candidates in the waning days of campaigns knew too well the nearly irresistible temptation to view the good men and women running against them as evil, and to see their views and policy positions not as honest disagreements, but as malevolent deceptions, or at least wholesale departures from the self-evident will of God or the Founders.

There’s evil enough in the world, but the last days of a campaign are not the time to catalog it. They’re a time of emotional volatility and extremes, and of looming political derangement.

I’m not making this up. I’ve seen it happen to seasoned candidates, who are in their second, third, or fourth campaigns, and who know to expect it. I’ve seen it in myself, when I’ve been wrapped up in a campaign. Experience conveys an advantage here, perhaps, but it doesn’t confer immunity.

Brad Frost

Brad Frost

Carlton Bowen

Carlton Bowen

What We Can Do

Here’s what the rest of us can do.

We can thank our candidates for running, even the ones we didn’t vote for, and even if we don’t fully understand how grueling is the last mile of their marathon.

We can cut them some slack, if they’re a little terse or even paranoid when we see them at the ball game or read that angry e-mail.

We can ask the ones we support how we can help their campaigns in the last few days. And when they can’t think of anything, because they’re trying to think of everything at once and their thinkers are burned out — we can offer some specific suggestions and let them choose one.

If there’s a candidate on our block, we can take her some cookies or a loaf of bread or a case of her favorite energy drink — or rake her leaves or pick up her kids from school (by prior arrangement only, please).

New This Year

And we can remember that there’s a new problem this year.

Rookie candidates who’ve been around campaigns before may go into the experience with a decent sense of what it will be like — except for the pressure and exhaustion of the final hours and days. At least they can look forward to it being over, one way or another, on Election Night.

Except that now they can’t. With the advent of mostly mail-in elections, Election Day itself is mostly meaningless, and Election Night is a shadow of its former self, almost laughable now. If the results are not a blowout in that night’s returns, they could easily reverse themselves in the next few weeks, as more votes are counted and new numbers are announced. In our own American Fork primary this year, one result changed two weeks after Election Day, and suddenly Councilman Jeff Shorter was in the general election, and Ernie John wasn’t.

So the campaigning may end Tuesday, but the suspense may not. Add that to some new concerns, such as how many ballots may have been invalidated when a part-time temp in the county clerk’s office decided that the signature on the 2017 ballot didn’t match the signature on the 2003 voter registration. (This happened to a state official I know.) There’s plenty for a candidate to worry about after the campaign is over, too.

It’s Not About Me

For my part, I’m not feeling the exhaustion this time. I haven’t earned it. I haven’t done much boots-on-the-ground work for any campaign this year. I put some signs in my yard and passed out a few more, but mostly I’ve been trying to gather and post information about candidates and their views, which can be difficult for voters to collect in local races. As usual, I’ve also been shooting off my mouth about candidates’ views and temperament, explaining when I think they have their facts or logic wrong, and publicly declaring whom I’m supporting and whom I’m not. But shooting off my mouth is second nature to me.

Sometimes I wonder if a friend who’s running will even talk to me after the election, after I’ve blogged about his pros and cons, and maybe even explained to a couple thousand voters why I voted the other way. But usually we end up okay. In any case it’s the price of my admission to the conversation. More importantly, it’s far less stress and trauma than the candidates and those close to them will be feeling this weekend.

By the way, for candidates all of these troubles usually come on gradually over weeks and months. They don’t just wake up one morning in early November as paranoid political basket cases. So I try to cut them some slack earlier in the campaign too, and stick to the issues and not make a fuss about the angry private conversations or the bitter late-night e-mails — when I’ve written that they fumbled a debate response, or I’ve offered an explanation of an issue that’s different from their own, or I’ve said (presumably unfairly) too many nice things about the opponent.

I wouldn’t have you think there are a lot of unpleasant communications to me from candidates, but I’ve frustrated them often enough. A few times, I’ve incensed masses of people, who thought I should be supporting their candidate, when I wasn’t. When the dust settles, I can only cite with confidence two instances where my intermittent torrent of words might — might — have affected the outcome of a close race.

Life and politics go on. Over time, I’ve occasionally learned to dislike officials whose election I supported. More often I’ve learned to appreciate the work of officials I’ve opposed. I use the phrase “one guy’s opinion” a lot, when I write certain things, and even when I don’t it’s implied. Sometimes one guy’s opinion is wrong.

Which is the price of having an opinion. But it’s also why, in the end, it’s easy for me to remember that we self-appointed gadflies and pundits aren’t what Election Day is about. It’s about candidates and voters, and thank heaven for both.

So, speaking as a voter . . .

Candidates, I have some sense, from past observation, of the price you pay to run — especially in these last few days. I thank you and yours. It is not a small thing you do.

 

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