Appearance – Dressing to Your Voters, Not Above Them by Mario Piscatella

By at June 2, 2011 | 4:49 pm | Print

Appearance – Dressing to Your Voters, Not Above Them by Mario Piscatella

Very few districts at any level are communities in which a business suit is “standard attire.” This becomes even more obvious when you look at the electorate, particularly the universes most likely to be targeted by a progressive campaign. If you don’t recognize it is funny to see a guy (or gal) in a business suit speaking to a crowd at pig roast or a county fair, you may need to get your observation skills re-tuned.

When you are perceived as overdressed by the audience, it adds to the barriers already stacked up against a candidate for breaking through with their message. The audience sees the candidate as less approachable, less like themselves, they become far less likely to become emotionally tied to the campaign. This reduces donor and volunteer potential, and it closes doors the campaign may not even be able to find on their own.

To get a mental image of this in action, in the late summer of 2007, Rudy Giuliani and his Presidential campaign dropped in at the end of a parade route in rural western Iowa. The staff and candidate stepped off the bus in fancy dark suits and shoes and walked among the locals, dressed in denim shorts and t-shirts, trying to interact with them. After fifteen minutes of finding no one willing to talk to them, they got back on the bus and left, having wasted hours driving across the state and lowered their level of support in the local community…just by getting off the bus.

So how should a candidate (and their staff) dress? The rule I use is no more than one level above the expected audience. If you are attending a formal dinner and everyone else is in suits and ties, you should wear a suit and tie. If you are attending a casual backyard barbecue, where the audience is wearing shorts/khakis and t-shirts, you should wear khakis and a polo or button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Keep a blazer, tie, clean shirt, alternate shoes, etc in the car at all times, you can shuffle up or down a level of dress very easily. Women can do the same thing with a variety of accessories, accents, alternate blouse, shoes, etc. This will help you deal with the realities of campaign scheduling where a backyard barbecue is followed by a dinner with an elected official or big donor.

Combine the above guidelines with what is even more important, you should be comfortable.  As a candidate, surrogate or staffer, you have plenty of things to be anxious about, wearing clothes that make you uncomfortable shouldn’t be part of the problem. Remember that you may need to carry things like notes, donor envelopes, etc, so tailor your attire to accommodate such things comfortably.
As a candidate you should always have someone else with you at events, whether it is a paid staffer or a volunteer. That person should be carrying your cell phone, keys and watch if you wear one. A candidate should never manage their own time, allow that ‘staffer’ to manage time and pull the candidate out at the appropriate time or if the situation warrants, keep them extra time, understanding they may be late for the next event. Often as a candidate you will feel you should stay at a given event where you feel you are connecting well with the audience, the ‘staffer’ might see that you are not really gaining any ground, the people you are speaking too are at their maximum level of support (or rejection) already.

Having a candidate answer a phone or check their watch while speaking to you is another turn off, it diminishes the intimate quality of the interaction, reduces the perception of respect and value towards the supporter/donor/activist. These are easy things to avoid, allowing you to make the most of your campaign’s time at events.

A recent self funding candidate’s staff claimed that the reason he was constantly wearing ill fitting and heavily wrinkled suits was that it made him “more approachable”, more “like them”. This is a phenomenally bad rationalization. The candidate was perceived as being unable to dress himself, even with the help of his wealth, wife and campaign staff — this is not going to inspire a great deal of confidence in the candidate’s ability to serve the people. On what ever budget your campaign and candidate are living, you can get properly fitting and comfortable clothes.

MPA Political, LLC is a comprehensive campaign consulting firm working to elect intelligent, honorable and progressive Democrats to all levels of government.

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