In 1905, George Washington Plunkitt, a member of the New York City Tammany ticket, published a book titled Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics. Plunkitt, one of the most successful politicians in the history of the City, was a crony of the infamous William M. Tweed. Despite that, over 100 years later, his book remains in print as one of the best tools to understanding the fundamentals of political success.
The truth is that Plunkitt’s writings are still pertinent to modern political climate. A trip through American history and the examples outlined herein will show that his advice was truly timeless.
One chapter that sticks out specifically is titled “To Hold Your District,” which discusses how to win and retain an elected seat in government. Plunkitt outlines how, on the most basic of levels, to gain favor in the eyes of the constituents and how to turn that into votes.
On the very first line of the chapter Plunkitt states, “There’s only one way to hold a district: you must study human nature and act accordin’.”
Interestingly, he goes on to say that understanding human nature can’t happen through reading books. He asserts rather, that the academia behind politics is often what causes the politician to make mistakes. The politician would avoid these errors, the argument goes, if his vision wasn’t clouded by schooling. He contends that education isn’t the best way to learn about the voters and, once educated, it is very difficult to unlearn the knowledge gained. He continued by saying that once an individual’s vision has been clouded, it is very hard to see the nature of the people and “act accordin’.”
Early in his career, Senator Joe Lieberman had a campaign experience that expresses a similar sentiment. As he says in his book titled An Amazing Adventure, where he and his wife recount memories from their lives on the campaign trail. He tells of an instance where listening to his professional advisors, instead of his instincts, costs him an election. He reminisces in his book about how he had a gut feeling about how his voters would react to a certain policy proposal, but he changed his tune due to the pundits and it caused him to lose the race.
In 1940, an unknown attorney named Wendell Willkie launched his campaign for president. The Democrat turned Republican went from unknown lawyer to Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.
In the year 2000, Donald Trump, a wealthy businessman and political activist wrote about Willkie in his book The America We Deserve, a book that served as a preface to his own presidential campaign, which he launched as a member of the Reform Party.
Trump explains that, in his opinion, Willkie won over voters because he had “the common touch.” As a result, the media outlets became obsessed with him, and not too long later he became an “overnight…contender” for the presidency. Trump goes on to say that he thinks it can happen again, very similarly in his case. Sixteen years later, it did. Trump has the “touch” and was able to recognize it in a historic context and mimic it in his own political ambitions.
But that wasn’t the only instance Trump showed his intuition – Trump showed that he knew what the people would want – even sixteen years before his serious candidacy. He says that he will be a brash, straight-talking candidate that will serve as such a stark contrast to his “boring” and “low-energy” political opposition, and that he will get “interest” and votes from Americans nationwide. Trump’s foresight with these statements are eerily consistent with what happened in 2016 and shows that perhaps he has the people’s touch and was able to use it to develop a 16-year plan to obtain the presidency.
As Lieberman describes in his book, there is definitely a certain quality that some people possess where they can intuitively understand the desires of those around them. And as Plunkitt discusses in his, that is the way to win elections. Trump and his campaign was the modern embodiment of that.
Appealing to the voters can happen in complicated ways such as policy propositions. But Plunkitt gives a more basic approach that seems to be equally, if not more successful, and which is consistent with his tactics throughout his book. He says, “I hear of a young feller that’s proud of his voice…I ask him to join our glee club…he’s a follower of Plunkitt for life.” It’s true, after an opportunity to perform your passion before a group of prestigious people, why wouldn’t that person vote Plunkitt every single election cycle?
The theme of much of Plunkitt’s book is that nothing is more important than the follower – the one who will vote for you through thick and thin no matter how ugly things may get.
Things, at times, got pretty ugly for the Trump campaign, but his base to this day has not budged because he gained irreversible followers just like George Washington Plunkitt. Trump, I would suggest, did it through his Twitter account, where he was able to deliver a message directly to the pocket of his followers. At this writing, the most recent polling shows that 96 percent of Trump voters don’t regret voting for him (Washington Post). It appears as though Trump’s voters are just as loyal as Plunkitt’s were.
Elections are won by getting to know your voters. It is something that a textbook or a degree can’t teach you. It is the study of human nature around you. It is a social science – as political science was meant to be.
The concept of rejecting the academic is more appropriate today than Plunkitt probably could have ever imagined. Today, where polls are biased and skewed and where intellectuals are trying to desperately figure out how Trump won the presidency despite breaking all the rules, it seems that Plunkitt’s approach is the best one. Like Trump and Willkie, candidates must develop the “common touch.”
It is clear to me now that Senator Lieberman’s mistake was that he knew the people of Connecticut well, and he knew exactly what they wanted, but he let his Yale education get in his way. A mistake I assume he never made again in his future successful campaigns.
Plunkitt writes elsewhere in the book that “reformers” never stay. They never get re-elected, and that obviously remains to be seen with Trump. We will have to wait four years to see if Mr. Plunkitt’s advice holds up. But what is that in the scheme of 102 years?
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore