THE BLOG
11/04/2014 08:41 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

How An Election Night Loss Can Be Your First Victory

Mark Wilson via Getty Images

To all the candidates across the United States: tonight's the night, good luck. After a long day of pep talks and get out the vote efforts you're going to get the only set of poll numbers that matter. The people will speak and the verdict will be final.

Some of you may outperform your models and expectations; some may underperform.

But many of you will lose.

Losing is not fun. I've been there; standing center stage at the most depressing "election night celebration" you'll ever attend. However, just as there's a wrong way to win, there's also a right way to lose. As I said in my 2006 concession speech, "Even though the results are not what we wanted, there is no shame in defeat."

Knowing what to say and how to act in your campaign's lowest moment can be the spark that helps you kick-start your next successful run for office. It's an audition for the role you didn't know you were up for. In short, people are watching. Make it good.

In those first moments after the check mark appears on the television screen next to the other person's name, a candidate should take steps to show that they are a viable choice for the next election, which for some offices is just two years away.

That starts with a thank you to all of the voters, a bit of grace and an appropriate level of humility. You hear the electorate and you accept their judgment.

What a candidate should not do is follow in the footsteps of Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel and deride the voters who participated in the election and attempt to win in a courtroom rather than at a ballot box. McDaniel's unprofessional behavior has probably disqualified him from another chance at the seat when Senator Thad Cochran retires or any other elective office in Mississippi that might be available in the next six years.

In the following weeks and months, motivated losing candidates will seize the opportunity to reflect on what went right, what went wrong, and why he or she decided to get into politics in the first place. These reflections are what enable political losers to become "the inventors" of electoral politics according to political scientist Kenneth Shepsle. "(I)t is losers who provide a political dynamic in public life -- innovating and strategizing to become winners on the one hand, and energizing the incumbent winners to anticipate and try to deflect the losers' maneuvers on the other," Shepsle proposes.

Finding the right lessons from defeat will give today's losers a better shot at becoming next cycle's victors.

Our last three presidents lost U.S. House races early in their careers. Those failures allowed each man to determine what kind of candidate he was going to be, and showed him how a loss could turn out to be a better outcome in the long run.

After losing to Democrat Kent Hance in 1978, George W Bush learned the value of authenticity, after being caricatured on the trail as a privileged product of Yale University and Harvard Business School. According to Hance, after losing Bush decided, "He wasn't going to be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again." After that initial defeat, Bush never lost another run for office.

President Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, noted that he spent the first days after his 1974 loss "in a funk," but eventually saw a silver lining. "(I)t would be a good while before I realized that the congressman had done me a favor by beating me," he wrote. "If I had won and gone to Washington, I'm sure I never would have been elected President."

It will be a while before we know which of tonight's losers will be able to turn the tables in the next campaign.

Until then those that come up short should remember some of the most useful words on failure from Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech. "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly... and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

In time, it is possible for today's losers, through careful contemplation, to begin to see the path to future greatness through tonight's wounds.

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Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).