By Adam Grant
In some arenas, it seems that the costs of giving clearly outweigh the benefits. In politics, for example, Mark Twain’s opening quote suggests that diplomacy involves taking ten times as much as giving. “Politics,” writes former president Bill Clinton, “is a ‘getting’ business. You have to get support, contributions, and votes, over and over again.” Takers should have an edge in lobbying and outmaneuvering their opponents in competitive elections, and matchers may be well suited to the constant trading of favors that politics demands. What happens to givers in the world of politics?
Consider the political struggles of a hick who went by the name Sampson. He said his goal was to be the “Clinton of Illinois,” and he set his sights on winning a seat in the Senate. Sampson was an unlikely candidate for political office, having spent his early years working on a farm. But Sampson had great ambition; he made his first run for a seat in the state legislature when he was just 23 years old. There were 13 candidates, and only the top four won seats. Sampson made a lackluster showing, finishing eighth.
After losing that race, Sampson turned his eye to business, taking out a loan to start a small shop with a friend. The business failed, and Sampson was unable to repay the loan, so his possessions were seized by local authorities. Shortly thereafter, his business partner died without assets, and Sampson took on the debt. Sampson jokingly called his liability “the national debt”: he owed 15 times his annual income. It would take him years, but he eventually paid back every cent. After his business failed, Sampson made a second run for the state legislature. Although he was only 25 old, he finished second, landing a seat. For his first legislative session, he had to borrow the money to buy his first suit. For the next eight years, Sampson served in the state legislature, earning a law degree along the way. Eventually, at age 45, he was ready to pursue influence on the national stage. He made a bid for the Senate.
Sampson knew he was fighting an uphill battle. He had two primary opponents: James Shields and Lyman Trumbull. Both had been state Supreme Court justices, coming from backgrounds far more privileged than Sampson’s. Shields, the incumbent running for reelection, was the nephew of a congressman. Trumbull was the grandson of an eminent Yale-educated historian. By comparison, Sampson had little experience or political clout. In the first poll, Sampson was a surprise front-runner, with 44 percent support. Shields was close behind at 41 percent, and Trumbull was a distant third at 5 percent. In the next poll, Sampson gained ground, climbing to 47 percent support. But the tide began to turn when a new candidate entered the race: the state’s current governor, Joel Matteson. Matteson was popular, and he had the potential to draw votes from both Sampson and Trumbull.
When Shields withdrew from the race, Matteson quickly took the lead. Matteson had 44 percent, Sampson was down to 38 percent, and Trumbull was at just 9 percent. But hours later, Trumbull won the election with 51 percent, narrowly edging out Matteson’s 47 percent.
Why did Sampson plummet, and how did Trumbull rise so quickly? The sudden reversal of their positions was due to a choice made by Sampson, who seemed plagued by pathological giving. When Matteson entered the race, Sampson began to doubt his own ability to garner enough support to win. He knew that Trumbull had a small but loyal following who would not give up on him. Most people in Sampson’s shoes would have lobbied Trumbull’s followers to jump ship. After all, with just 9 percent support, Trumbull was a long shot.
But Sampson’s primary concern wasn’t getting elected. It was to prevent Matteson from winning. Sampson believed that Matteson was engaging in questionable practices. Some onlookers had accused Matteson of trying to bribe influential voters. At minimum, Sampson had reliable information that some of his own key supporters had been approached by Matteson. If it appeared that Sampson would not stand a chance, Matteson argued, the voters should shift their loyalties and support him. Sampson’s concerns about Matteson’s methods and motives proved prescient. A year later, when Matteson was finishing his term as governor, he redeemed old government checks that were outdated or had been previously redeemed, but were never canceled. Matteson took home several hundred thousand dollars and was indicted for fraud.
In addition to harboring suspicions about Matteson, Sampson believed in Trumbull, as they had something in common when it came to the issues. For several years, Sampson had campaigned passionately for a major shift in social and economic policy. He believed it was vital to the future of his state, and in this he and Trumbull were united. So instead of trying to convert Trumbull’s loyal followers, Sampson decided to fall on his own sword. He told his floor manager, Stephen Logan, that he would withdraw from the race and ask his supporters to vote for Trumbull. Logan was incredulous: why should the man with a larger following hand over the election to an adversary with a smaller following? Logan broke down into tears, but Sampson would not yield. He withdrew and asked his supporters to vote for Trumbull. It was enough to propel Trumbull to victory, at Sampson’s expense.
That was not the first time Sampson put the interests of others ahead of his own. Before he helped Trumbull win the Senate race, despite earning acclaim for his work as a lawyer, Sampson’s success was stifled by a crushing liability. He could not bring himself to defend clients if he felt they were guilty. According to a colleague, Sampson’s clients knew “they would win their case—if it was fair; if not, that it was a waste of time to take it to him.” In one case, a client was accused of theft, and Sampson ap- proached the judge. “If you can say anything for the man, do it—I can’t. If I attempt it, the jury will see I think he is guilty, and convict him.” In another case, during a criminal trial, Sampson leaned over and said to an associate, “This man is guilty; you defend him, I can’t.” Sampson handed the case over to the associate, walking away from a sizable fee. These decisions earned him respect, but they raised questions about whether he was tenacious enough to make tough political decisions.
Sampson “comes very near being a perfect man,” said one of his political rivals. “He lacks but one thing.” The rival explained that Sampson was unfit to be trusted with power, because his judgment was too easily clouded by concern for others. In politics, operating like a giver put Sampson at a disadvantage. His reluctance to put himself first cost him the Senate election, and left onlookers wondering whether he was strong enough for the unforgiving world of politics. Trumbull was a fierce debater; Sampson was a pushover. “I regret my defeat,” Sampson admitted, but he maintained that Trumbull’s election would help to advance the causes they shared. After the election, a local reporter wrote that in comparison with Sampson, Trumbull was “a man of more real talent and power.” But Sampson wasn’t ready to step aside forever. Four years after helping Lyman Trumbull win the seat, Sampson ran for the Senate again. He lost again. But in the weeks leading up to the vote, one of the most outspoken supporters of Sampson’s was none other than Lyman Trumbull. Sampson’s sacrifice had earned goodwill, and Trumbull was not the only adversary who became an advocate in response to Sampson’s giving. In the first Senate race, when Sampson had 47 percent of the vote and seemed to be on the brink of victory, a Chicago lawyer and politician named Norman Judd led a strong 5 percent who would not waver in their loyalty to Trumbull. During Sampson’s second Senate bid, Judd became a strong supporter.
Two years later, after two failed Senate races, Sampson finally won his first election at the national level. According to one commentator, Judd never forgot Sampson’s “generous behavior” and did “more than anyone else” to secure Sampson’s nomination.
In 1999, C-SPAN, the cable TV network that covers politics, polled more than a thousand knowledgeable viewers. They rated the effectiveness of Sampson and three dozen other politicians who vied for similar offices. Sampson came out at the very top of the poll, receiving the highest evaluations. Despite his losses, he was more popular than any other politician on the list. You see, Sampson’s Ghost was a pen name that the hick used in letters.
His real name was Abraham Lincoln.