One big takeaway from Virginia? Authenticity is essential

One big takeaway from Virginia? Authenticity is essential
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Boring can be beautiful.

If there’s one thing Virginia voters learned about Ralph Northam before they propelled him to a decisive victory Tuesday night, it’s who he is. Northam isn’t flashy. He’s a doctor and a veteran; a public servant focused on taking care of kids. They knew who he was.


Sure, his policy positions mattered. His campaign ran a compelling ground game. And the backlash to his opponent Ed Gillespie’s outrageous attacks mattered. Without a doubt, some of the result is attributable to voters’ vehement rejection of President Trump.


But one factor shouldn’t be overlooked in the post-game analysis on Virginia’s governor’s campaign: One candidate told voters exactly who he is. Northam was authentic. Gillespie wasn’t.

Voters got to know Ralph Northam. The very first ad his team at MVAR produced, titled “My Life,” told his personal story as a native of rural Virginia, a VMI graduate who became a U.S. Army doctor and then a pediatric neurologist. And his campaign didn’t stop at one traditional biographical ad: Every speech Northam gave revealed who he is and why he’s taken on the issues of his platform.

Voters learned what Northam had done with his life and, from that, they could infer what made him tick, what he cared about and what he’d do as governor. Motivations matter to voters but, all too often, political campaigns forget that. People don’t just want to know what their leaders are going to do; they want to know why. Ralph Northam answered that question for Virginians: He cares about service, his community, and kids.

For example, his ad “Future” highlighted his career as a pediatric physician, using that background to explain his policy positions on behalf of children — including raising teacher pay and making college affordable. Northam’s campaign wasn’t based on just an empty litany of policy, it was a policy litany people could believe. 

Even the first time his campaign ran a response ad, it responded to Gillespie’s attack that Northam hadn’t shown up for meetings by pointing out that he showed up for military service and for his work as a doctor.

Northam didn’t try to remake himself into something he’s not. His campaign could have followed advice from some, and fashioned him into a resistance hero, taking on Trump at every turn — but no one would believe that, not about a doctor and veteran who once voted for George W. Bush. He could have positioned himself as a culturally conservative Democrat obsessed with cutting spending — but no one would have believed that either, not from a guy who wasn’t a businessman and who had championed gun violence prevention for years. He could have pretended he was a national progressive hero — but it’s hard to make that jibe with a reluctant politician who’s always had a local focus.

His campaign didn’t try to remake him. His team made sure voters knew who he is and what he believes in.

On the other hand, the Gillespie campaign somehow managed to make the candidate with the least authentic professional background imaginable seem even more inauthentic.

Gillespie was already going to struggle to convince voters to believe his motivations: He built his career on being paid by special interests to take their positions. But he could have followed the path of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who highlighted his lobbying background to prove he’d deliver for his constituents. Gillespie didn’t do that.

Instead, he transformed from a lobbyist for companies that supported immigration into an anti-immigration hardliner. He morphed from a party leader who had warned Republicans against race-baiting and xenophobic campaigns into a Trumpian culture warrior. It wouldn’t have mattered if Gillespie’s plan on a given issue was more in sync with what voters wanted, because voters couldn’t tell why he had taken the position.

Not every candidate will have a personal biography as compelling as Northam’s, but everyone has a story — a unique motivation. Some candidates will be veterans and businesspeople. Others will be resistance activists, community leaders and local elected officials. The Northam campaign was smart to make sure voters knew who its candidate is, but they’re not the first to think of it. In the 2008 campaign, voters knew that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE was a community organizer, and in the 1992 campaign, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive takeaways from Arizona's audit results Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE was known as a “Man from Hope.”

The best example of the Northam campaign’s relentless focus on telling voters who he is? He was never pictured as the typical, generic smiling candidate in that 3-second paid-for disclosure at the end of the ad; he was almost always shown as a doctor. They didn’t miss a chance.

In fact, his campaign was so focused on making sure voters knew the Ralph Northam story — so they would understand the Ralph Northam agenda — that one pundit criticized that “Ralph Northam brought a stethoscope to a gunfight.” Turns out the stethoscope was mightier than the gun.

The way to capitalize on the backlash against Trump isn’t necessarily to have candidates who remake themselves into progressives or into moderates but rather ensure they are credible alternatives voters can believe in.

As Democrats look forward to 2018 and 2020, there are plenty of important takeaways from Virginia’s campaign, but don’t miss Northam’s critical lesson: Be authentic. You do you. 

Jesse F. Ferguson is a Democratic strategist who got his start working in Virginia politics. Most recently, he was deputy national press secretary and senior adviser on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE’s 2016 campaign. Previously he served as deputy executive director and director of independent expenditures for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.