It’s not just winning, but HOW you win

Some would tell you that the larger, more diverse electorate that shows up in a Presidential year means Republicans are marching toward disappointment in 2016. Not so. In my new piece at Communities Digital News, I discuss how data-driven campaigning delivered most of the really close races of 2014 to the GOP – and how that sets them up for future success.

Sure, 2014 was a wave election – but that shouldn’t detract from smart Republican campaigns that put themselves in position to take advantage. There’s a difference between riding a wave and surfing.

Wow, was I ever wrong

I sure was pessimistic last week, wasn’t I?  After predicting a 49-49 tie in the Senate and losing two of the four key incumbent governors, imagine my surprise when Republicans swept the four gubernatorial elections (while picking up big surprise wins in Illinois and Maryland and a lesser surprise in Massachusetts) and blew well past 51 Senators. In almost all races, Republican candidates outperformed their public poll numbers, which points to really well-run, tactically superior campaigns. That’s one half of what your need to win.

The second half is messaging, and the fact that my third prediction – that minimum wage increases would pass in red states – was right on the money. Sen. Mark Udall’s “War on Women” messaging might not have worked, but you can bet the Democrats’ class of 2016 won’t fumble the issue so poorly as he did, and might find more receptive ears among the younger, single women who come to the ballot box in two years. Throw in climate change, immigration, and taxing the rich, and suddenly Democrats have a suite of winning issues on which to build their next majority.

That’s why the 2016 campaign has to start immediately – and it has to be about issues before it becomes about candidates.

Fearless Forecasts 2014

Before the polls close and the sun goes down on another Election Day, some predictions:

The Senate: Control of the U.S. Senate is what everyone’s talking about this year, even if it’s not the most significant slate of races. Republicans will pick up seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, and West Virginia. With a loss in Kansas, Republicans will control 49 seats at the end of the night, with Georgia and Louisiana heading to a runoff. Close losses in several states (especially New Hampshire and North Carolina) will result in a round of “What went wrong for the GOP?” stories tomorrow morning. Georgia’s runoff will be more competitive than most pundits currently expect.

The Big Four Governors: Democrats and Republicans will split the top four gubernatorial re-election contests, with Scott Walker and Rick Snyder holding on in Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively, and Rick Scott and Sam Brownback losing in Florida and Kansas. It will be a bad night for Kansas Republicans.

The Aftermath. Minimum wage referenda – which have slipped under the radar – will be successful in several Republican states. On the back of this, Democrats will push for similar measures in expected 2016 swing states to help Democrat turnout.

Sen. Udall’s Heckler and Handling Negative Information

For all the time spent talking, political campaigns are usually such well-orchestrated affairs. But every now and then, a seemingly random event vocalizes a key point – something proviously unspoken, but unquestionably known.  (Think the “macaca moment” of 2006, when the electorate was already whispering about then-Sen. George Allen, “Isn’t he kind of racist?”)

Sen. Mark Udall had a moment like that yesterday, when a donor – a donor! – called him out on his stuck-in-2012 war-on-women rhetoric about opponent Cory Gardner:

Then, finally, came the only reference to policy in Udall’s speech. “And by the way, I’m proud to stand with Colorado’s women,” he said, almost as an aside. “I’m proud to stand for reproductive freedom.”

An angry voice from the crowd jeered: “That’s not the only thing you stand for! Jesus Christ!”… The heckler was Leo Beserra, a 73-year-old who made millions on Wall Street and, since the early 1990s, has shared a generous slice of that wealth with Colorado Democrats.

Beserra’s grievance – that the senator’s narrow focus on abortion has backfired – is shared by others in the party, but rarely voiced in public and never in the midst of the candidate’s campaign speech.

That brought to mind a lesson we used to teach back at the Leadership Institute about handling negative information. The details come from an election in the 1960s or 1970s where the incumbent candidate had an affair. The tryst had been exposed by a sex tape, created in the days where that meant an audiocassette; the raunchy content made it impossible for newspapers to cover (not to mention radio). That didn’t prevent wide distribution, and soon most reporters and editors had heard the tape. Copies had been made and distributed to friends and friends-of-friend, and the philandering candidate (philandidate?) saw his poll numbers wane.

Then the challenger mentioned the tape as a joke in a public speech.

The joke went over well, but gave the newspapers license to cover the tape – and, more specifically, the challenger’s comments. It wasn’t long before the incumbent’s wife was on TV, decrying the challenger’s rudeness at bringing up such a private matter. The incumbent won a narrow reelection victory.

It’s not a perfect analogue, but Democrat candidates are imploding all over the place – whether it’s Martha Coakley’s even-I-know-this-is-BS rhetorical gymnastics in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race or Texas’s Wendy Davis repeatedly trying to point out that her opponents has overcome a crippling handicap. Republican operatives should let it happen – and not try to clumsily squeeze every drop of negative press out of an incident.

If I were advising Cory Gardner or an outside group looking to help tip the scales, I’d tell them to let the reporters have fun with Mark Udall getting heckled by his own supporter. First, a supporter of Udall has much more credibility when he says the “War on Women” crap is getting tired, and he probably speaks for lots of Democrats who are tired of hearing the same songs played again. Second, it reminds voters that the Democrats have plenty of deep pockets on their donor lists, too. That’s the story the reporters are telling.

Trying to weigh in would change the story – and not for the better.

The 2014 Senate Elections Gambling Form

Rasmussen tells us three out of five voters believe there will be a GOP Senate, and belief in inevitability can be powerful.  So how do we judge how well the parties actually do? Thankfully, sports gambling concepts can help. Isn’t it great that two of America’s finest traditions, illegal gambling and politics, go so well together?

The actual spread: 5 1/2 seats. Because Republicans have been so bad at tamping down expectations, the basic spread for the Senate will be 5 1/2. If the Republican gains are higher than that (six seats or more) it means Senate control; any fewer means the story on Wednesday morning is that the Republicans are limping out of the midterms once again foiled by a changing demographic.

What the spread ought to be: 8 1/2 seats. Better messaging and more advanced voter identification, starting in 2013, would have created a foundation for the party to take much better advantage of the wave of unrest the electorate has.  An unending series of scandals and screw-ups from the White House gave the GOP and the broader conservative movement the platform they needed to articulate a better vision for a smaller, more competent government.

And make no mistake: The lower spread is more an indictment of a broader conservative movement content with winning ankle-hurdle victories in red states and not nearly aggressive enough in expanding the  base of people receptive to such messages. It’s tough for Republicans to win the battle of the ballot box in places where no one is fighting the battle of ideas.

Why Obama’s “On the Ballot” remark was secretly genius.

About ten days ago, President Barack Obama seemed like he had decided to write political ads for Republicans by declaring that his “policies are on the ballot.” Republicans crowed and Democrats moaned that it was a mistake destined to hurt Democratic candidates, who are running away from the president with cartoonish urgency.

The last few days have indeed been poor for Democrats, but that’s largely the doing of a set of candidates who either forgot how to talk or who looked at their wheelchair-bound opponent with the suspicious disdain of Walter Sobchak. That all this followed the President’s comments is largely coincidence. Their undisciplined candidates have proven as adept at self-destruction as Republican candidates have been in the previous three election cycles.

Throw in an unfavorable issue environment, and 2012 is an election that could get away from Democrats. But as a recent Gallup poll shows, Republican voters aren’t geeked for November 4 like they were in 2010:


In other words, Republican gains in 2014 will be as much or more the result of disillusionment and lethargy on the left as it is about excitement on the right. Two years ago, these voters were excited and motivated – which is why Romney winning the supposedly vital “independent vote” didn’t help him at all.

Will independent voters be turned off by Obama’s policies being on the ballot? Maybe, but if you’re the Democrats, who cares? You won without them in 2012, and the only way to win in 2014 is to drag out the people who thought it was so important to elect and reelect the President.

This video should scare Democrats, and not just in Kentucky

If you’re a Democrat Senate candidate, you should be very scared about the videos James O’Keefe is dribbling out this week, like this one:

And not just because his Project Veritas Action released a second video today. If you look at O’Keefe’s body of work/trail of tears, it becomes clear that not only does he understand how to use video to tell a story but how to use multiple videos to establish a narrative.

The smart money is that there’s more video out there of more Democrat campaign supporters in more states saying more stupid stuff.

Project Veritas has seized on the idea that Alison Grimes isn’t quite as pro-Kentucky energy as she’s let on, and now she’s stuck between her extreme supporters and the mainstream voters she wants to court. And every Democrat in a targeted Senate race has some issue where they have a similar disconnect with their voters. (Heck, Mark Pryor got asked about Ebola and he couldn’t answer for fear of providing fodder for a round of negative ads.)

Right now, senior Democrat campaign operatives in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Iowa, and Michigan should be wondering if one of O’Keefe’s crew has one of their people saying something stupid on candid camera.

The coming Republican bloodbath?

Stu Rothenberg has joined the chorus of prognosticators predicting Republicans will win the Senate majority in November. In many ways, that’s irrelevant because of three incumbent governors.  Polls show tight races for Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and Rick Snyder in Michigan; Sam Brownback in Kansas isn’t blowing the doors off his challenger, either.

The importance of these seats goes beyond the fact that the states tend to be close in Presidential years; in his own way, each of the four governors has enacted reforms that make a real-world case for conservative policies. The mantra that “Republicans have to be FOR something!” is tired but very true. Each of these incumbents has enacted policies that have improved their respective states. Losses in any one state could wash away years of real progress, and it might make Republicans in other states suddenly reticent to push a reform agenda.

There are other conservative reformers out there who either aren’t up for reelection this year or who don’t have a serious opponent. These tight races will be a good electoral test for policies which have, so far, been effective. That means even more to the Republican Party than who runs the Senate in 2015.

(In the interest of disclosure, the firm I work for has done work for Walker, Scott, and Snyder and for party committees in the respective states – but as should be patently obvious, no inside information was used in linking to those publicly available polls.)

Scott Brown should double down on his “gaffe”

Look and what that crazy Scott Brown said last week: 

Here’s the thing, folks say, what are you going to do to create jobs? I am not going to create one job, it is not my job to create jobs. It’s yours. My job is to make sure that government stays out of your way so that you can actually grow and expand.

The American Prospect called it a “horrible gaffe and a few left-wing outlets are trying to make some hay out of it. They may want to think twice about giving Brown’s comments more oxygen. Polls from the past few months show that the American public is gaining confidence in the business world and losing confidence in the institutions of government

Ethereal opinions are one thing, the campaign trail is another. This campaign trail cuts through New Hampshire – a state whose license plates read “Live Free or Die.” Something tells me those voters might respond well to a candidate who can articulately state that yes, government’s power has limitations.

There is not one phrase of Brown’s quote that is damning. In fact, it may be helpful in wooing independents and Republicans disillusioned with the recent four-way primary.

“No doubt someone’s preparing an ad right now based on the quote,” opines the American Prospect. That’s for sure – and it should be someone working for Scott Brown.