Election Night Protocol: Win or Lose, Signal Why You Care

November 4, 2018

The turmoil of the midterms will reach a fever pitch on election night as people anxiously watch the returns. No matter the outcome, it’s up to the candidates to signal the strung and drang of the campaign has ended and the work of governing will soon commence.

For first-time candidates, many of whom are women who ran pledging to bring change, the occasion is a chance to demonstrate what kind of leader they intend to be. The best will use the moment to strengthen our democracy by graciously acknowledging the voter’s decision. Here is my advice for the candidates.

Support Those Who Support You

When Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) won her primary she declared, “people expect more from their leaders.” As she thanked those who believed an African-American woman should take on a white incumbent and could win in a majority-white district she pledged to be “unafraid” to represent those who don’t see themselves reflected in government. The first rule of thumb is “to dance with the one that brung ya.” A favorite expression of former Texas governor Ann Richards, the point is a simple one:  support those who support you.

Expressions of loyalty are also necessary for the supporters of losing campaigns who may feel their effort and sacrifice was all for naught. Pressley defeated Representative Mike Capuano by double digits and he conveyed the way forward to his loyalists, “We did everything we could do… America will be okay. Ayanna Pressley will be a good congresswoman and Massachusetts will be well-served.” Once the primary votes are tallied the party faithful customarily come together to present a united front.

When You Feel Low, Go High

A concession speech can be more painful in partisan contests and when the race was a tight one. In 2012, when Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) won a Senate seat by one point over Republican Rick Berg, he called to extend best wishes. Heitkamp did him a solid in return by acknowledging how difficult those conversations can be and sharing that he actually called twice. Heitkamp campaigned on her ability to “walk across the aisle” and the message was a central theme of her victory speech.

When Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) lost a primary to a Tea Party challenger, she quickly conceded with a grace that wasn’t reciprocated by her opponent who she later defeated as a write-in candidate. Fifteen days after the general election, Joe Miller was still complaining that ballots shouldn’t be counted if voters misspelled her name. Murkowski claimed a historic win as she was the first successful write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate in 50 years.

In a campaign mired in ugliness, Barbara Buono couldn’t conceal the contempt she felt for the members of her party who supported her opponent Chris Christie for governor in New Jersey.  “The Democratic political bosses… made a deal with this governor… they didn’t do it to help the state, they did it out of a desire to help themselves politically and financially.” Buono’s anger may have been justified, but bitter finger-pointing lingers like a bad taste in the mouth. Further, it does little to heal the hollowness that accompanies the rejection of party leaders or voters.

Hold it Together

It is the low moments that require marshalling inner reserves of strength. Women have been fearful of displaying emotion since Pat Schroeder was criticized for breaking down when she announced her departure from the presidential race in 1987. It’s okay to convey what you feel but do it with words and not tears, especially if you hope to reenter public life.

Look Beyond You

A personal defeat doesn’t mean the cause doesn’t endure. In 2008, Hillary Clinton made this point when she paid tribute to those who toiled on her behalf for “putting 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.” Recognizing that the moment is bigger than you are is a way to show leadership. Seize the election night spotlight to remind voters why you ran in the first place.

Quote a S-hero

Too often remarks are a hodge-podge of platitudes, such as “I couldn’t have done it without you” and “I love our state.” One way to avoid this mistake is to draw inspiration from someone you admire. In her 2016 Senate win, Kamala Harris called upon Californians to be ready to protect their values by recalling the words of Coretta Scott King, “The fight for civil rights, the fight for justice and equality, must be fought and won with each generation.”

These times do demand more from our leaders. Election night 2018 is an opportunity for stateswomen to display a new and much needed face of leadership.

Speech coach Christine K. Jahnke is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out: How to Use Your Voice to Drive Change (October 2018).