As we proceed full speed into the 2024 presidential election, the levels of bitter, vitriolic, divisive, often misleading, bombastic, and demeaning rhetoric from candidates of both parties continues to escalate.
This election cycle reminds me of a very bitter and contentious general election for governor in Pennsylvania.
In that election, the Republican candidate was William Scranton, a former one term Republican member of Congress. The Democratic candidate was Richardson Dilworth, the incumbent mayor of Philadelphia.
Scranton’s political resume was thin. His only experience as a candidate was his successful run for Congress. Despite that, the state GOP was bullish on him after losing to Democratic candidates in two previous gubernatorial elections. They believed Scranton’s success as a volunteer civic leader on economic development issues in a depressed region of a rust belt state would resonate well with voters.
Dilworth on the other hand, had a long history of political success in Philadelphia. He was elected city treasurer, district attorney, and twice as mayor. His success was due in part to Philadelphia being a deep blue city with huge numbers of Democratic votes cast in local and statewide elections.
Dilworth’s electoral success in Philadelphia was also based in part on a simple, but effective campaign strategy. His campaign would purchase time on a local TV station to which he would invite his opponents to a debate. He did so fully expecting his opponents would not participate. They always obliged him. As a result, he had a full hour of viewers to himself, where he reminded them not only of his accomplishments, but also repeatedly mentioned that his opponent chose not to participate in the debate.
As the November gubernatorial election heated up, Dilworth again rented TV time and invited Scranton to join him for a debate. He smugly assumed that Scranton, like all his previous opponents, would be a no show.
Dilworth assumed wrong.
Minutes before airtime Scranton unexpectedly strolled into the TV studio. A surprised and angry Dilworth had a meltdown. It started when Dilworth shouted at Scranton, “What are you doing here?” During the debate, Dilworth peppered Scranton with insults. With thinly disguised contempt he called Scranton a phony, a coward, a Little Lord Fauntleroy, and an Ivy League Dick Nixon. Unruffled, Scranton calmly but forcefully responded with “You sir, are a desperate man.”
All of this was captured on film and was also widely reported by the print media who were there for the debate. Even those who did not see the actual television debate read all about Dilworth’s meltdown.
The debate was an unexpected and game changing negative branding movement for Dilworth’s grace under pressure, civility, and steady leadership credentials.
By contrast, the debate was an unexpected and game changing positive branding moment for Scranton’s grace under pressure, civility, and leadership credentials.
In November, Scranton beat Dilworth with 55% of the total statewide votes. This occurred despite strong support for Dilworth from President Kennedy who had carried Pennsylvania in the preceding statewide presidential election.
This is a lesson for the candidates the Republican Party and the Democratic Party eventually nominate for president in 2024.
American voters have long deserved and rarely seen a presidential election where candidates are not demonizing those who disagree with them and their supporters, by questioning their motives and their intellectual capability to make informed decisions.
Regularly showing grace under pressure, civility, steady leadership, and respect for all views during a long and often grueling campaign is the best way for candidates to earn voter’s support and gain their trust to govern fairly and inclusively if elected.
Now is the time for presidential candidates from both parties to commit to disagree on issues without being extremely disagreeable. Voters deserve nothing less.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters who lives in Easton.