Public Speaking Advice for Handling BS on the Campaign Trail

February 27, 2023

“Are you the stripper?”

This question was posed to a congressional candidate as she was about to give her stump speech at a VFW hall.  Was the geezer purposefully attempting to rattle her with his lecherous question?  Or, what?

Politics is a combat sport.  For too long, women candidates have been on the field without the necessary protective gear.  Note to campaign staffs and consultants – it’s time to play offense when women candidates are hit with racist, sexist, or homophobic attacks.

Too many campaigns hold back – ignoring derogatory comments because they don’t view them as damaging. Or, candidates are advised to bite their tongue lest they sound whiny, petty and create a backlash.  In a post-2016 election world, this guidance is outdated.

It’s time for campaigns to pull on their big girl pants. It’s time for staff to give women candidates the support they need.  It’s time to empower the candidate.

1. Update the Campaign Playbook.

It happens.  Ugly comments appear in social media, voters say inappropriate things, opponents ridicule credentials. The women senators who are possible 2020 presidential contenders are already being targeted.  Kamala Harris is a “victim.”  Kirsten Gillibrand is a “lightweight” who “would do anything” for campaign contributions.  Anticipating implicit and explicit bias lessens the likelihood the candidate will be stunned speechless or blurt out a knee jerk response.

Dealing with the BS is an essential survival skill and that fact should be reflected in the campaign playbook.  Along with the chapters on how to manage the schedule and maximize call time – a plan should be in place for handling a range of slights.  Sometimes the strategic choice is to respond in the moment whether in person or online.  When a Politico Magazine headline defined former Lt. Governor and U.S. Senator Tina Smith in relation to her predecessor rather than her accomplishments, she responded with a light touch.

In other situations, such as a closed-door meeting, the best tack may be to initially deal with the offender privately. A donor who tells an off-color “joke” can be pulled aside by the campaign manager and told the behavior is unacceptable and an apology is expected.  This will signal to the team that top staff has got the candidate’s back.

If the offender is an opponent with a track record of abuse or the offense is egregious, then a public response can elevate an incident and ensure accountability.  In Maine, state legislative candidate Leslie Gibson was running unopposed when he called Parkland student Emma Gonzalez a “skinhead lesbian.”  When supporters rallied to her defense he was shamed into dropping out of the race.

2. Schedule Time to Build Reflexes.

Some candidates have been advised to affect a “go along to get along” demeanor. This implies that it’s okay for men to engage in verbally dominate behavior but women who do will be labeled as “difficult” or “having an attitude.”  Some candidates opt for the go along approach because they’ve been taught to play nice.   But, letting things slide is a self-defeating strategy that creates untold stress and over time erodes self-esteem.  Hillary Clinton wondered if she should have told Donald Trump to “back up you creep” when he stalked her during their presidential debate.

“You can’t win because you are black.”  When a Georgia voter dismissed gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams’ chances of victory because of her race, she didn’t take the comment sitting down. In her historic bid to become the first African-America woman elected governor she stated, “Being a black woman is not a deficit.  It is a strength.”

Negative comments often have the sophistication of a school yard taunt. Categorize slurs to be ready with neutral retorts.  For example, respond to name calling with, “That’s is something a bully would say.”  Or, for body shaming cracks, “That is so unkind and childish.”  When an opponent belittles an idea, shoot back, “There is no reason to personalize this.  Let’s stick to policy differences.”

Time to rehearse must be built into the schedule particularly for first-time candidates and in high-profile races.  Pressure test the candidate’s ability to maintain control while handling both explicit hits and subtle digs.  Practice takes the sting out of hearing people say hurtful things about you and helps minimize the flash of anger that causes adrenaline to spike and the heart to pound.  Learn to take a breath before speaking to check your fury and clear your mind.  Videotape the role-playing and establish a system for providing constructive feedback

3. Neutralize Personal Vulnerabilities.

With trusted advisors the candidate needs to work through the touch points that can cause personal insecurities or feelings of inadequacy to flare.  Women are too hard on themselves and this can keep them out of the arena.  They second guess their qualifications and unnecessarily count themselves out.  A potential candidate in New Jersey didn’t think she could run because she feared the judgement about her husband’s abandonment of their family.  What she didn’t realize was that many voters would admire her ability to care for children while working full-time.

Everyone has a past.  Decide how you will talk about subjects like divorce, sexual assault, a DUI, or lack of education.  Don’t wait until an opponent raises a vulnerability forcing you to deal with it in a reactive mode.  Don’t allow consultants to talk you into a narrative that’s not authentic.  Trust your gut to prevent later regrets.  At the same time recognize that voters are intensely curious about your personal life.  Set internal limits so you are comfortable with what say you and avoid oversharing.

4. Hire a Diverse Team.

Many senior campaign staffers and consultants have little or no experience electing women and women of color.  They don’t understand that running a woman is different and haven’t educated themselves about how to handle obstacles and manage opportunities.  They are likely working from playbooks developed by men for men.  Thus, may not be aware of the growing body of evidence that shows if a woman candidate doesn’t stand up for herself, voters question whether she will stand up for them.

In her energetic bid for governor of New York, Cynthia Nixon has hired top women to lead her team. The diversity is a stark contrast to the current leadership in state government.  On the campaign trail, Nixon recently called out Governor Andrew Cuomo’s all-male working group that was debating a new law concerning sexual harassment. One of the men on that team a state senator has himself been accused of sexual misconduct.

The make-up of your team sends a powerful signal about who you listen to and what you care about.

5. Power of the Collective Voice.

For the candidate taking a wide-lens view of offensive treatment can help depersonalize the attacks. With Trump in the White House the powerful have been empowered to attack the less powerful. It may be helpful to view yourself as a proxy for others who don’t have a voice on health care, immigration, racial justice, and reproductive rights.

There is strength in numbers.  With a team behind you, pushing back can help your campaign.  By standing up for yourself you will model behavior a lot of people are paying attention to right now.  Do it for yourself and do it for the women who are coming along behind you.

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).