How Not to Campaign and Win

With no money, political novice Jim Summerville’s best chance was not to do much and hope that the anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat mood was strong enough that folks would vote for him. It worked.

There are lots of training programs for political candidates to attend that will tell them how to win a campaign. But I’ve never heard of one that would have commended a campaign method that was just tried in Tennessee, namely, not trying. But it worked.

The Tennessee political world was shocked by the election results in November. No one could have predicted that state Republicans would pick up 14 seats in the state House, and earlier in the campaign season no one would have predicted that Congressman Lincoln Davis would get beat so soundly. But absolutely no one would have predicted that a political novice, Jim Summerville (R-Dickson County), with no money, would beat veteran state Senator Doug Jackson (D-Dickson).

Here’s what made this race particularly unusual: Senator-Elect Summerville didn’t really campaign. He didn’t have any money to campaign with in the first place. Didn’t even have a website. He spent less than $2,000 when no credible campaign for the state Senate today spends less than $100,000, easy.

But it appears that Senator Jackson didn’t spend any money campaigning. Not that he didn’t have money. He had money in his campaign account, $28,000, and could have raised plenty more. In fact, he could have made a significant personal contribution to his own campaign had he wanted to.

But when you are a well-established political name and your family’s name is well-established and the “other guy” isn’t doing anything, then it’s very easy to see why Senator Jackson didn’t go out knocking on doors, putting up signs, and buying television and radio time. After all, folks don’t normally vote for somebody they’ve never even heard of. Even Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey had not met Mr. Summerville until after the election.

My guess is (and it’s probably shared by others) that by not campaigning, Mr. Summerville gave himself the best chance of winning. Had he really tried to campaign—raise money, put out signs, etc.—Senator Jackson would have turned on the political machine and gotten busy. Mr. Summerville’s best chance, though no one could have predicted it, was not to do much and hope that the anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat mood was strong enough that folks would vote for him.

Turns out it worked. Some say this was like David and Goliath. But I disagree. This wasn’t really like David and Goliath. Unlike the biblical figure, the “David” in this story went out to fight without even his slingshot. And he still killed the giant.