Political spin occurs when a candidate or cause provides an interpretation of events in order to shape public opinion to win an election or advance a policy objective. Done well, that interpretation is delivered to target audiences through trusted messengers and establishes an understanding that moves the undecided toward acceptance of a position or politician.
Great spin is messaging that is disciplined and focused. It is straightforward and revolves around commonly understood images or values so people can understand why it matters to them. Great spin is reasonable and relatable for the persuadable voters who almost always decide elections.
Bad spin, however, is just politics as usual. It can be innocent enough when it tries to overplay the significance of entirely expected events. That was the case last week when Shenna Bellows, the only Democrat running against Republican Sen. Susan Collins, trumpeted an endorsement by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
It is not egregious for a Democrat to hype an endorsement from other Democrats, but it has little real meaning unless it comes with something tangible such as a pledge to spend millions trying to unseat Collins.
Despite the presence of Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill in the race in 2012, the campaign committee ceded an open Maine Senate seat to independent Angus King with the belief or knowledge that King would align with Democrats in Washington. Given that pragmatic approach to electioneering, one would suspect that the committee would find more impactful opportunities for its finite resources in 2014 than a campaign against the very popular Collins.
I am more than a decade removed from the Collins team. If I were on the staff today this would be the beginning of some spin suggesting that the Bellows campaign is not viable. I would solidify that messaging with some platitudes about Collins’ independent approach to problem-solving and her tireless advocacy for Maine’s job-creating small businesses. As accurate as that praise would be, it has no place in a spot-on piece of electoral analysis from an insightful and sometimes playful political columnist.
At its worst, bad spin is uninspired and it does not influence anyone about anything, usually ending up being defensive and dumb. The most bad spin ever achieves is the motivation of a narrow constituency and the reaffirmation of their core beliefs.
Bad spin turns off most people, and turns people away from the governing process. Exaggerate. Distort. Label. Repeat until the electorate is dizzy and disgusted.
I was the LePage for Governor press secretary late in 2010 when Angus King endorsed Eliot Cutler for governor. One approach would have been to lash out at King as a non-native, out-of-touch, past-his-prime politician whose endorsements had mattered little in prior statewide campaigns. I also could have blamed him for the 1998 Ice Storm. None of that is true save for the fact that King is not a native Mainer and was, by his own admission, born in Virginia where his mother happened to be at the time.
Great spin, Angus.
Instead I issued a statement that was respectful of King’s service and pointed out that Sens. Olympia Snowe and Collins were supporting the LePage for Governor campaign. When you can get some good news about your candidate in your opponent’s announcement, you are doing well.
While I think that was an example of good spin, I am also guilty of some bad spin. And I am sure a whole lot of just adequate spin. Some quick lessons I have learned along the way to conclude this week’s column.
â€¢ Do not spin angry. While I have not always executed perfectly, the only thing I have said that I truly regret in the context of political spin was an attack on a radio host who was questioning the makeup of the LePage family. I angrily lashed out at the host’s profession. It was mean-spirited, and I later apologized.
â€¢ Keep it brief, focused and, when you can, keep it in writing. When providing comments to reporters you need to stay focused and on message. The more content you provide, the more latitude you give to the reporter to choose a quote. Go off the record to provide context. Go back on the record to hit your key points.
â€¢ Find a trusted champion. The best messengers are never spin-doctors like me but rather people who are symbols for the very message you are trying to send. Good examples would be a small business owner talking about job-killing regulation or a parent speaking about the importance of school funding.
â€¢ Focus on the right audience. Bad spin gives your supporters cause to pat you on the back and celebrate the way you attacked your opponents. Great spin, like thoughtful analysis, makes persuadable voters scratch their heads and think.
Hopefully, that is the regular result of this column.
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @demerittda