How to Lose an Election

What do Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson all have in common? Yes, they were all U.S. Presidents. Also, they all lost elections at least once.

In most provincial and federal elections, we usually focus on who won. But, for most candidates, elections involve losing. In the 2015 federal election, for example, 1,454 candidates lost, compared to the 338 who were elected. If you’re a candidate for office somewhere (unless you’re acclaimed), there’s a good probability that you will lose.

Losing is hard. It scars you. I experienced it first hand, when I lost the 2011 provincial election in the Ontario riding of Scarborough Southwest. And though I lost to a long-standing incumbent, it still stung. It taught me much, though. Every person who runs for any sort of political office should prepare for losing. It happens. The odd politician is fortunate to go undefeated for an entire career, but for the vast majority, defeat happens.

campaign clinton 1974

Clinton’s snazzy campaign lit wasn’t good enough for him to win his 1974 congressional campaign!


How to Lose

Since defeat is inherent in politics, we must do so with dignity, humility and grace. It’s the job of a defeated candidate to concede to their victorious opponent, and congratulate them. An election defeat is no time for sour grapes. It’s part of democracy. The only way out of the emotional chasm of defeat is taking the high road. Thank your volunteers. Acknowledge any mistakes. Accept the will of the voters. Commend your opponent on winning.

For those running in upcoming elections, no matter what party, no matter what province or state, heed this advice. Remember that the stench of defeat will only hang over you as long as you let it. Accepting it and moving forward positively is the only way to take on new challenges, political or otherwise.

campaign photo

Here I am on the 2011 provincial campaign trail, which would have been impossible without the support of family, friends and volunteers.

The worst part of losing an election is knowing that it’s not just you. You can’t help but feel the responsibility of letting your family down, the ones who supported you in every way. And friends and colleagues who helped and endorsed you. The supporters who donated money to run your campaign. And the countless volunteers who seemingly appear out of nowhere to assist a candidate they never heard of, because they believed in your vision.

An election campaign is not just about you, it’s also about all those who supported your candidacy. Nothing will let all these good people down more than appearing bitter and resentful after an election defeat.

Prepare to Lose? Yes
Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s horrible advice to tell a candidate to prepare for losing. “You should be positive, and believe you will win!”. Yes, be positive. Be confident. Be optimistic. But, be realistic. Losing happens.

Bill Clinton lost his first election for Arkansas’ 3rd congressional district in 1974. George W. Bush lost his first election for a House seat in 1978. Barack Obama lost his first election for a state seat in 2000. Abraham Lincoln famously lost eight elections, including the 1858 Senate race, before he was eventually elected President in 1860.

campaign 1976_Republican_National_Convention

Ronald Reagan was a successful 2-term Governor of California, a charismatic public speaker and rising star of the Republican Party, yet he still saw defeat at the 1976 GOP Presidential nomination to Gerald Ford (who himself lost in November to Jimmy Carter)

Sometimes defeat happens at the end of political career. Locally, I think of Ontario Premier David Peterson’s defeat in 1990, when he lost his own seat as well as the provincial election. Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe lost his seat in the 2011 election, as did Liberal leader and Etobicoke MP Michael Ignatieff. Of course, the tables turned in the next 2015 election when the governing Conservatives were defeated, and countless incumbent MPs and Cabinet Ministers lost their own ridings.

In elections, losing happens. More candidates will experience defeat, rather than victory. Those that lose with dignity and pride, however, are never really defeated, and often achieve success later. Don’t believe me? Just ask Abraham Lincoln.

Mike Chopowick – June 1, 2017

Top Photo: George W. and Laura Bush on the 1978 congressional campaign trail, a campaign he would lose. Bush did not run again until his 1994 successful election as Governor of Texas. Source: George W. Bush Library

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