By Richard Lee
Staying on message is an important component of a successful campaign. When a candidate’s message connects with voters, it sends a sign that the message is working.
But that is not the only way to tell that a message is working.
When your opponent reacts to your message, it is a significant moment in a campaign.
It means that your opponent realizes your message is working and that you have changed the conversation. Your opponent now has to talk about the topics you want to talk about — not the topics that comprise his or her message.
Kathy Hochul’s Sept. 20 press conference about security cameras on New York City subway cars may have been one of those significant moments when a candidate reacts to an opponent’s message.
On one hand, the event was typical of the campaign Hochul has been running. She and her staff have put the “Rose Garden” strategy to good use and have been capitalizing on the positive announcements she can make as governor.
On the other hand, her opponent, Lee Zeldin, has made crime a major part of his message. At public events, in media interviews and on social media, he consistently delivers a message that crime is out-of-control in New York and Kathy Hochul is to blame.
Hochul’s announcement that security cameras will be installed on subway cars plays right into Zeldin’s hands by confirming that there is a need to increase efforts to deter crime and make New Yorkers feel safer.
For me, the scenario brings back memories of my work with Jim McGreevey when he first ran for governor of New Jersey in 1997. Like Zeldin, McGreevey identified a message and delivered it consistently. His message was that New Jersey had the highest auto insurance and property tax rates in the nation — and that his opponent, incumbent Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, was to blame.
Whitman, who was a heavy favorite to win re-election, paid little attention to the issues in McGreevey’s message until the race tightened and polls showed him within striking distance of a victory.
As Election Day approached, Whitman acknowledged that auto insurance and property tax rates were a concern and held on for a narrow 1.1% victory. Four years later, McGreevey ran again and was elected governor by a margin of nearly 15 percentage points.
At this stage in New York’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign, Zeldin is well behind Hochul in most election polls. But he may find a bright light at the end of the tunnel if he takes a look at New Jersey political history.
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors. Click here to read more of Lee’s On the Road to Albany columns, and follow the Jandoli Institute on Twitter and Facebook.