Favorable financial woes

“Empathy” is what many political pundits are now saying President Obama lacks. They criticize him for an inability to communicate to voters that he “feels your pain,” as Bill Clinton so famously did. When he does manage to talk about dealing with economic hardship, it is usually in the context of struggling to repay student loans — an experience shared only by those fortunate enough to have gone to college in the first place.

But for some candidates, feeling the pain is not much of a stretch. In fact, financial troubles that in past elections might have been huge liabilities seem to be working to their advantage. Perhaps the most highly visible example is Nathan Deal, who surprised many by coming from behind to win the Republican nomination for governor of Georgia. Deal, an 18-year veteran of Congress who resigned this year just in time to escape a House ethics committee investigation, has managed to turn his financial problems into a campaign issue that seems to be working for him, not against him.

Deal co-signed over $2 million in loans to his daughter and son-in-law to start a retail business that died in the recession. Now he may have to sell his own house to pay off the debt. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story last month, Deal jumped on the issue. He calls it a sign of his family values — taking on an obligation to help out his children. “I think when you try to help your children, that’s probably always the right thing to do,” he recently told reporters. He says his situation is “an illustration of the fact that you need a governor who understands the pain that Georgians are facing.” 

Voters seem to identify with Deal’s characterization of the debt. “It just shows that everybody’s in the same boat these days,” a Marietta, Ga., woman is quoted as saying in a recent Los Angeles Times article. “I think on the whole he’s a good man who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Voters seem to see Deal as one who has suffered in the recession — and who hasn’t? 

Deal’s opponent, former Gov. Roy Barnes, has not touched on the unpaid $2 million loan — apparently believing Deal is correct in his assessment that most Georgians are probably sympathetic. Barnes has, however, blasted Deal for failing to report a separate $2.85 million business loan; he’s also taken aim at the Republican’s carefully timed resignation from Congress. The Barnes team distinguishes between the family loan, which is the sort of issue many are dealing with these days, and a business transaction that the candidate tried to keep hidden. Whether voters will make that distinction as well remains to be seen.

Georgia isn’t the only place with candidates in some sort of financial trouble. Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party outsider who won the Delaware Republican Senate primary, has a checkered financial history. She’s dealing with an IRS lien for unpaid taxes and has sold a home to a staffer to avoid taking a bath in a sheriff’s sale. These financial troubles don’t seem to be causing her pain with voters — although other elements of her history are. “I think the fact that I’ve struggled financially is what makes me so sympathetic,” O’Donnell has said. Clearly, she thinks actually sharing voter pain, not just feeling it, gives her a leg up this election year.

And it wouldn’t be the first time in history that politicians with money problems have prevailed. In the late 19th century, Gov. William McKinley of Ohio co-signed a loan with a friend to launch a business that eventually failed. McKinley thought his political career was over when that became public. But people who were living through the financial panic of the 1890s were sympathetic and chipped in to help — sending nickels, dimes and dollars to the governor. McKinley’s career was far from over. A few years later he was elected the 25th president of the United States. 

Marco Rubio, the Republican Senate nominee from Florida; Rep. Laura Richardson, a Democrat seeking reelection from Long Beach, Calif.; and the Democrat seeking to fill President Obama’s U. S. Senate seat from Illinois all have financial troubles in their past. Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois Senate candidate, was working at his family bank when it failed roughly six months ago. Even bank failure, it seems, does not disqualify politicians in this political environment. Voters understand that these are tough times for everyone and a few financial problems may actually make politicians more appreciative of what voters have been going through.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com