PARIS, France – With the Iowa caucuses just hours away and another election season in full swing, the pages of political history can shed some fresh light on the present. All the hallmarks of twenty-first century campaigns — face-to-face schmoozing, non-stop speechmaking, even negative ads — were well-known to the voters and candidates of ancient Rome. So what would Rome’s election experts think of us? The following imagines a Sunday political show with the famous first-century Roman senator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero; with responses from actual quotations of his writing.
Host: “…And we’re back, here in the studio with quite a special guest. With just two days to go before the Iowa Caucus, here to tell us who will win and why, it is my pleasure to give a warm, Sunday welcome to five-term senator, celebrated author and veteran political pundit, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Cicero: Salue, citizen.
Host: Let’s get right to it. Years before your famous political battles with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, you wrote the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Electioneering Handbook,” in preparation for your own run for head of state in 64 B.C. So Senator, if you’re a Republican candidate trying to win the caucuses, where do you start? What are the essential qualities that win you votes?
Cicero: “Remembering names, schmoozing, tirelessness, looking good, and looking like a good political bet.” [Commentariolum Petitionis, 41.2-4.]
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Start by mapping out the whole state — all the towns, the big associations, the wards, the hills, all of it. Then, you find the leading men from each one and start making friends; if you can win them over, you’ll quickly lock up the masses of votes behind them.” [Comm., 30.1-4.]
Host: Brings to mind the “grass-tops” strategy that carried John Kerry to victory in 2004, where he courted the local church and PTA leaders while then-frontrunner Howard Dean bused in orange-hatted freshmen from Arizona.
Cicero: That poor, shrieking man. “Present yourself as well prepared for your speeches as if all your intellectual powers were to be judged on each single try.” [Comm. 2.7-9]
Host: So if you would, Cicero, help me handicap this still-very-fluid Republican race. You have Ron Paul’s army of volunteers, Gingrich’s strong speaking skills, Romney and Perry’s big money, and Santorum and Bachmann, who haven’t left Iowa in months. Which of these assets translates to a win?
Cicero: “Never to leave town can pay great dividends for a candidate. But the gains from face-to-face campaigning come not just from showing up, but in canvassing the voters continuously, soliciting the same people many times, and not letting any voter say that he has not been canvassed by you — and thoroughly and diligently canvassed too.” [Comm., 43.2-7] In other words, spending money or time in Iowa helps, but the only real currency is the votes you can count.
Host: But say you’re a candidate like Rick Santorum. A lot of Iowans say, “I like him, I just don’t think he can win.” As a candidate, how do you break out of that trap?
Cicero: You win votes by looking like you’ve already won votes. Start by calling in every favor you’ve got: “plead, persuade, warn, just make it clear that there will be never be another chance for those you owe you a favor to thank you, or for anyone who might need a favor from you to earn one.” [Comm., 4.1-4] Why? Because shaking hands with 10 people at a truck stop may make you look folksy, but that’s not how you impress people.
Host: Let’s talk about Mitt Romney for a moment. Wave after wave of “Romney alternatives” have come and gone — Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich — and yet he remains the most likely nominee. But you watch him on the campaign trail, and he just doesn’t have the personal touch of a Bill Clinton or even a George W. Bush. What is Cicero’s prescription for Mitt Romney?
Cicero: I’d tell him, “you are not wanting in the pleasant manners proper to a kind and agreeable man, Governor, but what the voters respond to is schmoozing (blanditia). Don’t think of it as being a flatterer or a fake; blanditia is about picking up on the humor and personality of each voter you meet, and adapting yourself to it.
If you want to win, then, be determined that what you lack by nature should be so well simulated that it seems a natural act.” [Comm., 42.5-13.]
Host: A tough balancing act, to say the least. Do you think Romney will be able to pull it off?
Cicero: “Though nature is strong indeed, yet an assumed personality can, it seems, overcome the natural self for an affair of a few months.” [Comm., 1.7-10]
Host: Lastly, I want to bring up the thorny question of negative advertising. Some say that the wave of 30-second spots criticizing Newt Gingrich are the main reason why his campaign is fading here. Negative ads are ugly, but don’t they work?
Cicero: I say candidates should play to win, but always pivot back to a positive message. “There should be scandalous talk, in character, about the crimes, lust, and briberies of your competitors. But above all, it must be shown in this campaign that high hopes and good opinions are entertained for your political future.” [Comm., 52.2-53.3]
Host: True enough, Cicero. So we’re just about out of time. Any thoughts about campaigns and democracy, 2000 years on?
Cicero: To the American voter, remember, “this is the inalienable privilege of a free people, and especially of this the chief people of the world, to be able by their votes to give or to take away what they please to or from any one.” [Pro Plancio, 11]
Host: And that’s all the time we have. The Commentariolum Petitionis is available from the Loeb Classical Library, in bookstores now. Cicero, many thanks.
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