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.

The NRSC’s Horrible, Horrible Video Game

The NRSC released Mission Majority this week, a simple online game with an 8-bit look that is just absolutely awful.

The game follows the adventures of an elephant named Giopi – like GOP, get it? – who is collecting keys and flipping switches to help the Republican party take back the Senate.  It’s obviously pure click bait, intended to draw in people and maybe squeeze out a donation.  It is kind of fun to play if you’re looking to waste some time at work.

The real problem is that the NRSC is not a video game company, so making a fun little time-waster isn’t enough. With 64 days to go until Election Day, everything released by a party committee has to have a message. Giopi’s mission is, as the game suggests, winning back the majority of the US Senate.  If you beat the game, you get a congratulatory note about how taking back the Senate will mean the end of the “red tape” and “regulations” holding America back.

“Red tape?” “Regulations?” Is that the compelling case the GOP is making to American voters this year?

People have lost their health coverage or been forced to pay more. Hourly workers are seeing their shifts cut short because the money isn’t there to pay them. Middle East terrorists are operating with no fear of retribution.

Maybe it’s just a game, but the NRSC’s tone deafnesses and inability to verbalize what they can offer the electorate in such an easy setting should be unsettling to anyone thinking about cracking their wallet open.


The “Against the Spread” Election

Princeton University’s Sam Wang thinks Democrats have a 65% chance of holding onto the Senate.  Republicans should be spreading that news far and wide.

Unfortunately for the GOP, most of the news media seems to take a Senate flip as fait accompli.  The concept of the “point spread” – a staple of fall once football season kicks off – applies to elections, too.  Expectations are the point spreads of politics.  For example: Conventional wisdom in January stated that Sens. Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu were toast.  But both are legacy politicians in states which favor such things, making the incompetence and indifference of their party’s nominal leader less relevant.  Fewer people than anticipated in Arkansas or Louisiana seem ready to link their November vote to the fact that the last year of the Obama Presidency has looked like a mix between a Jerry Lewis movie and that scene in Office Space where Peter stops pretending to care about his job.

Should Pryor and Landrieu pull off razor-thin victories, pundits will cluck that even in red states, Republicans were unable to win enough support to topple vulnerable incumbents.  On a national scale, if Republicans fail to win the Senate despite major media outlets anticipating a flip, there will be similar indictments of the GOP’s messages and strategies.

Now would be a good time to temper national expectations.  Party officials should talk about the lack of a national wave, while pointing out that frustration has been building for some time.  Political reporters should hear a steady drumbeat of phrases like:

  • “This isn’t 2010.”
  • “People are frustrated with all of Washington right now, we’ll see how individual races shake out.”
  • “A Senate flip would be pretty drastic based on the numbers of seats we’d have to pick up. We have some great candidates, but that might be a little bit of a stretch.”

A round of stories right around Labor Day throwing cold water on the national excitement wouldn’t be the worst thing (though it might have been better about a month ago). By framing a Senate switch as drastic, historic, and improbably, the GOP could have been in a position to claim an even greater popular mandate heading into 2015.

As it is now, a Republican majority is something the chattering class are expecting – which would frame even an appreciable gain of five Senate seats a crushing national loss.

Project Ivy and digital coat tails

Over at Communities Digital News, I have a new piece up about Project Ivy – the Democrats’ plan to deploy the digital tools that helped President Obama in 2012 and Terry McAuliffe in 2013 into down ballot races in 2014:

The data tools used this year may not help Democrats keep their hold on the Senate, or win more Governorships, or even gain ground in state legislative chambers. But all the data collected with those tools in 2014 will be mighty useful when a few hundred votes in Cuyahoga County could decide the White House in two short years.

Republicans may not need to match Democrats data point for data point to have a pretty good election cycle in 2014. But deploying their own tools with the future in mind will help build their abilities for coming cycles. 

You want more?  Here it is.

Democrats know they are facing an against-the-spread election this November. They’ll lose seats, but the question is how many. Dropping as many as five Senate seats to the GOP will look like a win if they maintain a voting majority for the next term.  And like a baseball team playing out the string with a 40-man roster in September, minor league talent in down-ballot races can help set the table for future victories.  Project Ivy isn’t really for 2014, it’s for 2016.

But if I bled Democrat blue there would be one major factor that rubs me the wrong way about Project Ivy: the name.

First off, ivy grows up, while the project takes high-level tactics and tries to push them down.  Maybe that strategy makes sense for Democrats, who put so much faith in federal government programs to cure the ills of small communities, but the metaphor is a bit off.

Second, remember Project ORCA? It was the widely panned GOTV app that Team Romney deployed in 2012, and was so named because the Obama team’s data processing system was nicknamed “Narwhal,” and orcas kill narwhals.  As it turned out, the narwhal was an octopus with tentacles everywhere, and orcas don’t do crap against octopi.  This metaphor is getting even more tortured, so let’s move to the point: A clever name often foreshadows failure.  The only political tactical operations with cool names that work are the ones you hear about after the election.

The best news for the GOP about Project Ivy might be the fact that the first news stories about it are in March 2014, and not the week after Election Day.

Three out of four ain’t bad…

Turnout operations are critical in tight campaigns – and especially so in mid-term elections, campaigns can’t rely on national awareness to gin up attention to Election Day.  As I noted in my most recent Washington Times Communities post, mid-term turnout modeling means than Republicans can win big with just 75% of their 2012 voters coming back.

Obviously, to create that much excitement, Republican candidates are going to have to have good messages and be disciplined about sticking to them.  But with continued problems with Obamacare, the messaging environment will likely be in the GOP’s favor.  And people who voted Republican in 2012 – which was an off-year – are probably much happier with their vote than their Democrat friends and neighbors.


Gallup-ping away from the right?

Gallup charts a declining percentage of Americans self-identifying as conservative, which suggests bad things ahead for the GOP.  Just 41% of Americans consider themselves economic conservatives, and 33% identify as social conservatives.  Both of those figures are down from 2010 numbers, and the results seem to give weight to comments like those of Olympia Snowe about the Republican Party’s narrow appeal.

While this is a speed bump for the GOP, it really measures failure of the conservative movement.  The constellation of groups churning out candidates and activists has not done a good enough job preparing them to appeal to non-conservatives.  The most effective leaders are those who can talk to the middle from the edge – it’s what makes President Obama such a great politician.  Going a step further: There’s no such thing as “too conservative to win” (or “too liberal to win”) a general election.  There’s such a thing as “too crazy to win,” and there’s definitely such a thing as “too stupid to win.”

If fewer people self-identify as “conservative,” then Republican politicians will have to stop using it as a buzzword.  That’s a smart thing to do, anyway.  Then it’s up to the conservative movement to articulate policy positions in a way that sounds reasonable to non-conservatives.

It would be more illuminating to see the specifics.  For instance, Gallup says that Americans remain suspect of government; the IRS suffering a predictable and precipitous dip.  Those are both “economic conservative” positions, but that doesn’t mean the respondents would self-identify as such.  And that could fuel exactly the type of issue-specific messaging that conservatives and Republicans can use to expand their influence – even if they don’t expand their brand.


If nothing changes, everything will stay like this!

Today, Politico opines that immigration reform will give Democrats a big edge in future elections:

The immigration proposal pending in Congress would transform the nation’s political landscape for a generation or more — pumping as many as 11 million new Hispanic voters into the electorate a decade from now in ways that, if current trends hold, would produce an electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.

Even Politico admits that this type of projection is “speculative” given that the newly eligible voters wouldn’t be casting President ballots until 2020 or 2028.  It doesn’t keep them from speculating, though.

This sounds similar to the countless pundits on the right who have been wringing their hands for the last six months over the Great Question of What Went Wrong in 2012.  How, they ask desperately, are we ever to win again?  We don’t speak to minority groups!  We don’t use Big Data!  Our candidates are bad!  Our messages are out of touch!  Look at all the support for President Obama in 2012!

Republicans who feel bad about this should review the last several candidates for President produced by the Democratic party before they struck gold with Obama:

  • John Kerry, an aristocrat out of Massachusetts who couldn’t beat a vulnerable sitting President.
  • Al Gore.
  • Bill Clinton, who was likable enough to score a second term but not ideological enough to move the ball for liberalism.
  • Michael Dukakis.
  • Walter Mondale.
  • Jimmy Carter.
  • George McGovern, an unabashed liberal who was thoroughly crushed.
  • Hubert H. Humphrey.
  • Lyndon Johnson, whose most liberal policies didn’t come out until he one re-election on the coattails of John F. Kennedy’s legacy.
  • JFK, a charismatic and media-friendly candidate who was able to ignite the electorate and win wide popular support.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s 48 years between exciting Democratic candidates.  If you want to find another Democratic candidate who helped the party ideologically, you have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt.

You could make a similar list for Republicans, of course.  The point is, political environments are fleeting and not static.  In eight years, GOP messaging could be very different, and the voices delivering those messages will be different, too – while left-leaning activists may be quoting the Great and Powerful Barack Obama the way today’s conservatives wistfully remember Ronald Reagan.



The GOP Autopsy; Or, Stop Saying What You’re Doing

The Republican Party released a report of deep introspection this week, and the reactions to the “GOP Autopsy” continue.  The report championed the need for the party to re-brand.  Naturally, that kicked off more of the “grassroots versus party bosses” and “Tea Party versus Establishment” arguments that have waged for months.

Those are false arguments.  The real failing of the “GOP Autopsy” is that it exists at all.  The report has quite a few excellent ideas, but the first rule of re-branding is not to say you are re-branding.  Making a big public show about a new image suggests that image is skin deep.  Memos like this are best kept internal.  When the memo inevitably leaks to the media, the right answer is, “Our party always looks at new ways to help great candidates bring their message to the people.”

The real answer to a political party’s woes – whether Republicans in 2012 or Democrats in 2004 – is to have party identity take a back seat to a good candidate that people can identify with.   A more welcoming candidate than John Kerry could have beaten George W. Bush in 2004; a more welcoming candidate than Mitt Romney could have beaten Barack Obama in 2012.  That makes organizing, candidate recruitment down ballot, messaging, and getting out the vote a lot easier.

(Sidebar: When discussing publicly the future of any political organization, it’s probably best not to refer to that discussion as the dissection of a dead body.  A corpse is a bad metaphor for “new and revolutionary.”)

Not just what it says, but where

Michael Turk had a great post on the center-right’s tech/data gap yesterday – but the best part was where he wrote it, in the American Spectator.

Spoiler alert: Turk warned that investing in new technology is not enough, that Republicans need smart people thinking about human behavior and voting patterns as well.  Good call: It’s not enough to figure out how people are interacting with a campaign, since most people in their right mind run away from political communication.  There’s an academic component in figuring out how to reach these people and keep them from running.  (Unless you use glue traps, of course, but there’s some questionable legality there.)

Ok, the right needs thinkers.  Where do they come from?  Political parties are good for resources, but not always innovation.  Remember that while much of the Obama infrastructure has been bequeathed unto the Democrat National Committee, it was the Obama campaign that built all the new toys.  Plus, if the eggheads don’t show immediate dividends, Republican candidates will wonder why the national party money that could be helping them win air wars is being spent to pay Lewis Skolnick.

The best spot for a bunch of data nerds is somewhere in the non-profit universe – whether it’s with an educational foundation like Heritage, an activist group like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks, or a super PAC like American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS/Conservative Victory/Crossroads: The Next Generation.  With no donation limits, these groups can make a much better case to the big-ticket donors they’ll need to get the ball rolling.  Since the checks can be bigger, it’ll take fewer of them.

Conservative movement non-profits could be better positioned to start the process.  That makes The American Spectator a pretty good place to raise the issue.