Class in Session: What the Presidential Candidates Need to Learn

Massachusetts has long been a political factory, pumping out campaign operatives and presidential aspirants (including this year’s Republican favorite). As primary season approaches, it’s natural to ask: Does our high-octane political culture have anything to teach the current crop of candidates? As a former presidential campaign spokesperson and a veteran of Bay State races, I’m convinced there are five lessons every politician — especially at the presidential level — should take from Massachusetts politics.

1) Friendliness matters. Not every Boston pol has soaked this in (paging the senator from Louisburg Square). But the great ones certainly did, recognizing that no one wants to listen to a bore or a snob on the nightly news for the next four years. In the 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney struggled to connect with voters. This time around, he’s (trying to be) a regular guy tweeting about Carl’s Jr. burgers and his flights on Southwest.

2) The power of touch. Don’t go to a Boston fundraiser if you like to keep your distance: You’re liable to get more hugs than Christmas at Grandma’s. Call it backslapping, glad-handing or just “connecting with voters” — Bay State pols like to get physical. Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations fizzled practically the minute he declared handshakes “barbaric” and a vector of disease. Epidemiologically, he may have a point. But politically, it’s a non-starter.

3) Small gestures can make all the difference. Many credit Ted Kennedy’s success in the Senate to his mastery of small, thoughtful details, such as personally phoning the families of every single Bay State 9/11 victim. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has toiled in relative obscurity this election cycle. But his campaign made a “small gesture” bet that may pay off — becoming the first candidate to visit all 99 counties in Iowa.

4) It doesn’t matter who’s the smartest guy in the room. Newt Gingrich — former college history professor and author of more than 20 books — prides himself on being the “candidate of ideas” in the race. But Massachusetts voters know it isn’t about being the smartest. Robert Reich’s gubernatorial opponents used the word “Professor” as a virtual slur against him (and Elizabeth Warren is getting the same treatment). The lesson for aspiring leaders of the Free World? Voters want to understand your character, not your intellectual bona fides.

5) The first-mover advantage. Bay State elections consistently rank as some the least competitive in America. One easy explanation is that up-and-coming Dems in a virtual one-party state don’t make friends by challenging their elders in primaries. But there’s also the issue of money: Incumbents often build up impenetrable war chests that guarantee them the job as long as they want it. Romney’s cash advantage — prompted by a campaign effort that’s essentially been humming since halfway through his tenure as governor — makes him a formidable opponent.

Bay State politics has a lot to teach any presidential candidate, and it seems even Romney (who regularly mocked Massachusetts on the trail in 2008) has finally taken notes. So this primary season, may the most Bostonian candidate win.

This post originally appeared in the Boston Herald.

Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and the former New Hampshire communications director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. She is the author of Reinventing You