Lend Me Your Ears

No one knows it all. And the candidate who thinks he knows it all doesn’t know how little he knows. Avoid that candidate. But most candidates are not that arrogant (or at least not openly so). So, who will have a candidate’s ear?

This is an important question. The old saying, “Bad company corrupts good morals,” is as true for politicians as it is for your teenager who is hanging out with the wrong crowd. So what should we look for to find out who will have influence?

What’s in a Name?

That’s a famous line from Shakespeare. Had Shakespeare been talking about political campaigns, he might have been asking how important is an endorsement really? Endorsements may be important, but don’t follow them blindly.

Don’t Assume

Always keep in mind that organizations that endorse candidates usually have a limited agenda. So be careful of “extrapolation.” For example, someone may be endorsed by a pro-life organization, but don’t assume that such a candidate must be conservative and will probably stand strong in defending marriage or opposing things like the homosexual agenda or obscenity.

Do They Know That of Which They Speak?

Endorsements by individuals, including celebrities and ministers, don’t in themselves mean much to me. It’s not that I have something against celebrities and ministers, but unless they really know the candidate, all they know is, at best, what they may have gleaned from a one- or two-hour interview. Now that is better than basing an endorsement off a speech, but the real question is whether the “interviewer” really knew the candidate and politics well enough to know what to ask or to evaluate the reasonableness of the answer, such as when a candidate makes a promise that can’t be kept.

When it comes to state offices, the answer is probably not. I’ve only seen one person of celebrity status (meaning made a movie, was or is on a TV show, or has written, sung or produced a song) on the Hill talking to legislators and observing the process. And apart from the Minister of the Day who may pray to open a session or those who attend our Ministers Day on the Hill event, I assure you there aren’t many ministers who ever come to the Hill to speak to a legislator or to consistently observe the process.

The point is this: It’s not that hard for a candidate to “put on a show” for an hour or two during an interview and say all kinds of good things. Good candidates know their audience and know what kind of things that audience wants to hear. I understand that, and that’s fine. But no matter how good a judge of character a person thinks he is, actions do speak louder than our words. For example, if the candidate was an incumbent, did the person making the endorsement really know how the incumbent has voted? If not, then their endorsement isn’t based on all the facts.

I have seen people endorse a candidate in this election cycle for having certain values that I know that candidate hasn’t adhered to faithfully. I’ve seen candidates make promises I know they will have a very hard time keeping, if at all. I’ve seen a candidate talk about standing strong on an issue that isn’t, in fact, even an issue in Tennessee. I’ve often wondered if the “endorsers” would have made their endorsement if they had known those things. Maybe they did know, but unless they really know their politics, they probably didn’t.

Second, and in my opinion more important than celebrity and ministerial endorsements is finding out who will have the candidate’s ear. It’s generally one of two kinds of people. First, it is their close personal friends—to whom they may feel accountable on a personal level. In this regard, you really need to watch our interviews with the gubernatorial candidates. The second group of people are those who finance their campaign.

Taking the latter group first, it can be helpful look at whom a candidate is getting his or her money from, whether running for a state office or a federal office. But keep in mind that politics makes strange bedfellows.

For example, I had an avowed atheist support me in my first election because he agreed with my policy positions and liked the incumbent less than me. I had a personal friend get all over me because of the person’s support. Another example is U.S. Senator Bob Corker, who caught flack because a liberal pro-abortion doctor supported him, yet the Senator has been true to the pro-life values he campaigned on.

So individual contributions are worth looking at. Just keep in mind that a contribution here and there from someone with values different from the candidate’s may not mean much. On the other hand, a pattern of contributions from those with different values may indicate that those people think they will have influence.

While contributors can be deceiving when it comes to knowing who will have the candidate’s ear, candidates generally don’t have people on their fundraising team who don’t share their values. The values of those people can be a good clue as to what a candidate really values.

And, if PAC’s are giving a candidate money, then most likely that candidate will support that PAC’s issues. Here’s a situation in the last session of the Tennessee state legislature proving my point about the influence of money.

But the people who are in a candidate’s inner circle will have the most influence on him or her. As a state senator, I knew lots of people, but they weren’t my confidants. I did try to listen to everyone because I never knew who might provide a pearl of wisdom. However, when push came to shove, there were only a handful of people to whom I turned to help me sort through all the information and issues that needed to be considered.

This information can be hard to find. But at least when it comes to the gubernatorial candidates who have raised $1 million or more, we hope our interviews with them will provide you some insight in that regard. We hope you’ll check out our gubernatorial interviews to see the questions we asked and watch the candidates’ answers.