Campaign Tips from Cicero
Going negative, doing retail, overpromising and microtargeting … it’s all there – and Quintus had it down 2,000 years ago
By James Carville
In 1972, when I was a law student and just starting out in the business of politics, I worked on a campaign for the district attorney in East Baton Rouge parish, advising a man named Ossie Bluege Brown. My job was to distribute negative literature on our opponent in strip malls and crowded grocery stores throughout the Baton Rouge area. Over the next 20 years, I did almost anything and everything for candidates at all levels of the political system, working my way up from passing out “hate sheets” in shopping plazas to contributing to Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992. Each campaign had its moments, but nothing in the modern political world comes remotely close to the feeling of winning the big one, which I got to share that magical night in Little Rock.
I thought that the advice I was giving my clients was special. Little did I realize that pretty much everything I’ve said was old news 2,000 years ago, covered expertly in Quintus Tullius Cicero’s strategy memo for the campaign of his brother, Marcus, for consul in Rome in 64BC. The Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, is remarkable.
Quintus starts with what we campaign advisers call “confidence building”, assuring the candidate that he has what it takes to win. He moves on to an assessment of the nature and strength of the candidate’s base and the need to target specific groups, cautioning against what might be perceived as class warfare. He urges his brother to go negative early, even bringing up the character issue (it must be easier to do when your opponent is a murderer, child molester, and “friend of actors”). He then moves brilliantly back to base development, urges his brother to pander, and anticipates Napoleon’s advice that a leader should be “a dealer in hope”.
Even without the benefit of modern technology, he suggests microtargeting, crafting specific appeals to the narrowest of segments of the voting public. He stresses the importance of retail politics and offers a fascinating discussion of how and when to say no if you have to. And Mitt Romney should take heart from the fact that Quintus advocates pandering and overpromising in almost every situation.
There are always those who say that politics is more negative than ever and that contemporary political consultants are more cynical and unrestrained than their predecessors. Anybody who thinks that just hasn’t been paying attention, and should go read Quintus’ advice to his brother. He suggests sticking to generalities during the campaign, telling the wealthy you are for stability and peace, while assuring the common man that you are always on his side. Oh, and accusing your opponents of “crimes, sex scandals, and corruption”.
I just hope my opponent in the next campaign doesn’t get a copy.