Would you vote for a politician who has money problems?
Why? Because increasingly, it's looking like they can't win either way.The New York Times' recent article, "Political Ads Attack the Other Guy's Lavish Living," explained how, in this post-recession age, multimillion-dollar candidates are being criticized for being out of touch and not understanding what the average American is going through.
Meanwhile, about a week earlier, the Los Angeles Times ran an article with the headline, "Politicians' money woes strike a chord with voters," which stated, "Candidates who've faced bankruptcy or foreclosure are finding that many people sympathize with their problems. And their opponents refrain from attacking on the financial front."
In this election, quite a few people who have financial troubles are running for office. Just a sampling:
- Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican who spent 18 years in the House of Representatives and is now running for governor of Georgia, owes $2 million due to a loan that went to a failed business deal. He may have to sell his house, among other things, to pay off the debt.
- Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) is behind on payments for her house -- by more than $42,000 -- and recently had to list her house for a short sale.
- Christine O'Donnell. The Republican candidate running for Senator in Delaware is probably the most famous of the bunch. There are allegations right now that she spent $20,000 in campaign money on gas for personal travel, meals, a bowling outing and her rent in Greenville, Del., which she has defended since her home is also her campaign headquarters. That said, O'Donnell has also reportedly had an IRS tax lien against her and, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, "has been accused of leaving a trail of unpaid bills."
- Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat hoping to win an Illinois Senate seat, has been lambasted because -- well, when you're already the Illinois state treasurer, it doesn't look good when your family's bank fails.
But just barely. At least the political consultants and experts I spoke with suggested that the politicians who have had money troubles don't have much of an advantage over the multimillionaires.
Tom DeLuca, a professor of political science and director of international studies at Fordham University in New York and the author of Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers! Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics, says, "There's a new social Darwinism that we're seeing in politics, especially among a lot of conservatives. It's basically a harsh version of the survival of the fittest mantra: that people need to take responsibility for what they've done. [For example, many] feel that homeowners have been bailed out of mortgages they never should have taken out in the first place."
But DeLuca adds that how voters view a candidate with money problems -- as sympathetic or flawed -- depends on what their politics already are.
Debra Caruso, a New York City-based communications expert who owns her own PR firm and blogs about television, echoes that sentiment. "This isn't a black and white issue. Perception plays a big role. How has a candidate been portrayed in the media? Did his or her opponent run scathing ads that greatly exaggerated a person's challenges? Did the candidate in question get himself into further trouble by fumbling when answering a reporter's question? In some cases, for example, you have a candidate with financial difficulties versus another who fictionalized a war record. Who would be the better leader? It may come down to a gut feeling or party affiliation."
Historically, admitting to financial woes hasn't been a very good idea, says Matt Eventoff, a communications strategist who advises and trains corporate executives and politicians on public speaking. "The message sent is, 'I can't handle my own money -- what will I do with yours?"
But Eventoff adds that some circumstances -- like if there's a medical or employment issue that led to a politician's financial struggles -- provide exceptions to that rule. "What a candidate doesn't want," says Eventoff, "is to be defined as having a personal spending problem, which is Politics 101 -- define yourself before your opponent has an opportunity to define you, and define your opponent before he or she has a chance. If, as a candidate, you have been defined as having a personal spending problem and living beyond your means, it's certainly not a good thing."
Joshua Harlow, a senior account manager with Jones Public Relations in Oklahoma City and a former political consultant, says he once represented a homemaker who ran for office -- "and she was attacked for not having a job and producing for society."
Maybe the growing condemnation of how politicians manage their personal finances is fitting in this Facebook and Twitter era of over sharing. Because while this has been the case for some time, now more than ever, says Harlow, "When you run for office, your personal life is on trial."
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.