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There is an art to campaigning — it is a constant game of cat and mouse with the voters. You want them to feel drawn to your candidate and to admire them. Traditionally, you strive to paint an image of a perfect politician: humble, endearing, capable, and charming. Yet, I’ve found that in a modern election, imperfection is a prerequisite for success. As a campaign manager for Muhamary Kiherille ’27, I used this strategy as a template and guided his candidacy to electoral success in the Class of 2027 class council election.
Over the last few years, election strategy has changed dramatically. I witnessed, for example, the election of Boris Johnson to the role of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2019, despite a campaign centered around a key figure with a dearth of humility and marked by imperfection. Alternatively, being a model professional and letting the policies do the talking led former Prime Minister Theresa May to near election ruin in her snap election in 2017. The charisma and charm May lacked, Johnson had in abundance. His aloof and carefree attitude was what resonated with voters.
One New York Times article credited a novel strategy which it dubbed “Silly Style” as granting Boris the “badges of credibility which bridged the class gap.” The modern election cannot be won by putting our elected officials on a pedestal; instead, it has seen a move towards electing someone who feels closer in reach, someone in whom we can see parts of ourselves.
Herein lies the nuance necessary for a modern campaign: we had to demonstrate that our candidate, Muhamary, was a capable and serious candidate for Undergraduate Student Government (USG) class council, while also showing a softer and more lighthearted side. He didn’t need to be perfect — he needed to be human, someone who cared about what other students cared about.
Candidates for any position generally highlight their unique perspective and skills they can bring to the role — in this respect, we were no different. Our online campaign kicked off with Muhamary’s speech, in which he led with details about his background as an international student, having been born in Tanzania and moving to the UK at the age of 4. This aspect of Muhamary’s profile was one which he and I, as well as our campaign advisor Thomas Hobbs ’27, were unsure about. We wondered whether being British would be an obstacle or something that set him apart from other candidates. Given the success of our campaign, it proved to be beneficial — particularly given that Muhamary was the only international student elected. His ability to bring a different perspective to the council did seem appreciated by our peers.
We also followed the classic model of endorsements and photo promotion. To win an election, one must already have credibility or have endorsements who lend it to you. We were fortunate enough to have both — it seemed to us that in the eyes of many, Muhamary was already a man who had established himself as a leader and a popular figure around campus. This influenced how we structured our campaign. We enlisted a group of Muhamary’s friends to help, including but not limited to myself and Hobbs, a member of the Princeton Model United Nations team.
We also had esteemed Men’s Varsity Tennis player Paul Inchauspe ’27 take photos with Muhamary to help promote the campaign. These photos were posted in a variety of campus spaces in order to reach various aspects of campus life. Some hung in Whig Hall, and others hung in the New College West hub of Addy Hall. These pictures brought together people who represented different aspects of campus life, exposing Muhamary’s candidacy to new audiences and as well as showing he is a man capable of representing the interests of all in our class year.
Even as we employed all of these more traditional strategies, however, we employed one novel tactic: we didn’t try to build some cookie-cutter version of a candidate who wasn’t himself. Instead, it was Muhamary’s humanness that allowed us to truly connect with voters. I ran a campaign characterized by his charisma, realism, and unity. Our campaign slogans “a vote for Muhamary is a vote for unity” and “vote wisely, vote MK” reflected this tone. Ultimately, we tried to use the slogans to communicate the good spirit and humor that Muhamary would bring to the office. These slogans and a variety of pictures of Muhamary made up much of our social media presence in the week preceding the election. The aim was to show a capable figure who was not afraid to laugh at himself or joke around.
In-person interactions with voters further increased this sense of humanity. I stressed to Muhamary that it was important to couple our steady stream of social media content with in-person connections to have a successful election cycle. We had countless conversations in which Muhamary emphasized his desire to help us loosen up a bit as a group and feel more united as a campus. The message of loosening up resonated a lot with voters, given the proximity to midterm examinations.
But it was the goal of a united campus that I feel propelled our campaign to success. We often joke about the — at least geographical — divide between the northern and southern residential colleges on campus, and how walking from New College West to Mathey or Rocky is a hike in itself. But in many respects, there is also a social separation between these sides of campus, something Muhamary seeks to address in his upcoming term. This message was clear in our campaign and it explains why almost 200 voters flocked to our cause. We took a common joke and popular sentiment and vowed to address the real issue underlying it.
Message, personality, and humanity were the hallmarks of our campaign, and I believe are the traits of any successful campaign. Especially at Princeton, you must show voters that you are one of them. That was what we did. And, at least for us, it worked.
Nile White is a freshman from the United Kingdom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.