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.

Brat vs. McDaniel

Tea Partiers should be watching Mississippi and Virginia very closely and watching the difference between two upstart candidates.

In Mississippi, conservative activists feel slighted by national Republican groups who supported Sen. Thad Cochran. Given the last-minute, over-the-top race baiting rhetoric that all but accused the Tea Party of resurrecting Jim Crow laws, you can see where McDaniel supporters are coming from. (Even if the NRSC or other Republicans didn’t green-light the strategy, the guilt-by-association isn’t a huge jump.)

And McDaniel walked right into it.

Even as an incumbent, Thad Cochran was not a great primary candidate.  A good opponent with a good campaign would have knocked him off without even needing a runoff. McDaniel could not jump over the low ankle hurdle of competence. How bad was he? He was a worse candidate than Cochran.

McDaniel’s sketchy connections with neo-Confederate groups were already in the public discourse. So when Cochran’s allies floated the idea of “expanding the electorate” to win the runoff, McDaniel’s response – deploying poll watchers to shoo away ineligibles – fed the narrative. Creating mental images of militant racist whites intimidating black voters was an easy bridge to cross in the minds of many voters.

The right response to Cochran saying he’s expanding the electorate should have been: “Bring it on, Broseph.” Well, maybe not the Broseph part, but you get the picture. He could have added: “I invite all Mississippians who are eligible to come to the polls. As we showed in the runoff, the more people who hear about our vision know that we stand for a brighter vision for all of Mississippi. I welcome the vote of anyone who agrees.” Or something like that.

That’s all he would have had to say. And yet, McDaniel kept talking about outsiders invading the primary- and he’s still talking, exploring ways to challenge the outcome. In defeat, McDaniel has talked more than the guy who pulled an actual upset, Dave Brat.

Brat has been pretty quiet since giving the political world a rare surprise by defeating Rep. Eric Cantor. Think about it: In a world of constant analysis and near-ubiquitous news coverage, no one saw Brat’s win coming. And he didn’t just squeak it out – he beat an incumbent in leadership by 10 points. (Disclosure: The firm I work for did work for Cantor’s campaign.) In the weeks since, outside of a statement criticizing the President’s immigration policies, Brat has been pretty tight-lipped in the national media.

Any so-called “Tea Party” candidate is going to wear a big old target on their back during this election cycle – just like they did in 2012. Democrats looking to cut their losses will surely look to take any candidate’s misstep and blow it up to build a national narrative. Brat hasn’t given them any ammunition; McDaniel practically loaded the guns for them. The candidate class of 2014 will need to speak carefully to avoid McDaniel’s fate.

The right answer on retirements

Remember when politics was more than a sport?

Years back, I told Matt Lewis I thought candidates were starting to sound too much like strategists.  John Thune fell into that trap with his reaction to the slew of recent Democratic retirements:

“It certainly suggests that the pathway to get to 51 is achievable,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Thursday. “I think depending on what happens in the next couple of years and depending on what retirements we have, a lot of these Democrat seats that are opening up, I think there are some opportunities for us — and I hope if we can get the right candidates in the races and resource them, we’ll have a shot at changing the equation.”

Nowhere in Thune’s response is the idea that Republicans could win every seat up for grabs with the ideas that voters are looking for.  He boils it down to an “equation” – a numbers game, as if he’s analyzing fantasy baseball for the MLB network.  Thune would have been better off giving a more general answer about the need to compete in all states, and to focus on working with everyone to make laws that will help out the American people no matter which party wins this election or that election.  It’s not all that quotable, but it’s still better than what was quoted.

It’s true that there are lots of strategic elements that go into winning races.  But speaking about them publicly belittles the fact that for all the microtargeting, get-out-the-vote technology, polling, and positioning, elections are still about ideas.  The techniques of battle don’t change the reason for battle.

And it’s simply poor technique to talk about the machinations of the campaign rather than the ideas.

As the political press covers the horse-race details of campaigns, it’s tempting to use their language and outlook.  But candidates, party leaders, and movement figures have to be above the fray, and their comments have to reflect a commitment to creating policies which benefit the American people rather than building campaigns which outscore the opponent.

Come to think of it, maybe the right kind of media-savvy, unflappable sports star would be a good role model after all.


The Tea Party’s first casualty of 2012

A moderate Democrat Senator, who had been backed into some tough votes, was made vulnerable by his public allegiance to President Obama.  The only possible path to victory would be a tea party Republican candidate lacking in media savvy and unable to connect with voters.  Unfortunately for Jim Webb, he isn’t Harry Reid.  Despite a wide-open Republican field stuck between lesser-known candidates and former YouTube sensations, Webb is not running for re-election in 2012.

Many political observers thought a groundswell of conservative activism would upend incumbents in 2012 – speculation included Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar, and even the normally safe Olympia Snowe falling in primaries.  Webb’s surprise exit beats them all.

Even without an opponent at this point, Webb had to see the writing on the wall that his re-election would be tough.   The redemption-seeking retread candidacy of George Allen is ripe for a tea party upset, and other candidates are lining up as well.  But with excited conservative activists and the absence of national Democrat momentum, Webb was destined to join Creigh Deeds in the second place circle in November 2012, even against a fringe tea partier.

Put another way, Sharron Angle, who narrowly lost to Reid, probably would have beaten Webb in Virginia.  John Buck in Colorado likely would have beaten Webb in Virginia.  Webb doesn’t have the long record of public service that Reid boasts, nor the leadership, nor the ability to raise nearly $25 million to holdhis seat.  Democratic campaign committees and independent groups were unlikely to chip in – races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, plus pickup opportunities in Nevada and Massachusetts, will all rank ahead of Virginia for national Democrats.

Aside from the realities of the electoral map, investing in a Virginia race with Jim Webb as your candidate has a strategic messaging issue.  After all, Democrats were able to beat back some challengers in 2010 by convincing independents that specific Republicans – such as Angle – were a bit loony.  Michael Bennet, Chris Coons, Reid, and others were able to paint themselves as sane alternatives to “crazy tea partiers.”

There is simply no conceivable way the tea party could out-crazy Jim Webb.


Americans for Prosperity helps lower holiday week productivity

Channeling 1980s classic Nintendo games, Americans for Prosperity has a fun game called “Lame Duck Hunt” on one tab of their Facebook page.

The game isn’t all that challenging, though the gloating images of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid that taunt you when you miss make it slightly more frustrating than it needs to be.  This isn’t a game review, though, it’s a strategy review, and there are a few things AFP gets very right.

First, you can’t play the game without surrendering an email address and a zip code, meaning that anyone who participates in this little time-waster tells AFP which Congressional district they live in and how to get in touch with them.

(You do have to re-submit your information each time you play, which discourages repeat users.)

Once you’re in, you predictably shoot down ducks, which then disappear in a cloud of feathers and leave behind warnings like “Higher Debt,” “Card Check,” or “Huge Tax Hikes” – the policies which ostensibly could be the result of the lame duck Congress.  You can then share your score with friends.

This is where AFP’s aim starts going awry.  The game never offers any backing for the labels – there are no details about suggested or proposed legislation which would lead to union bailouts, huge tax hikes, or higher debt.  The message at the end invites me to “visit the Americans for Prosperity website” for more information – but there is no link.  Contrast that with the game released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week, This Way to Jobs, a digital version of Chutes and Ladders which outlined the pitfalls of launching a small business.

Further, I have played the game several times (for… uh… research, for this post – that’s the ticket).  That means I’ve entered my email address multiple times, and haven’t yet received a follow-up auto-responder email.  After anyone plays the game, a quick follow up email inviting further action – while the issues are still fresh in the player’s head – could help AFP determine who is really on board with their policy agenda and who just hates video ducks.

Ideally, the game over screen and follow up communication would also allow users to identify what future actions they would be willing to take.  At the very least, it would invite a user to become a fan of AFP’s Facebook page.

These extra steps may not help with the lame duck agenda, but 2011 will be a critical year as the Republicans and Democrats try to set themselves up for success in 2012.  Lame Duck Hunt is a cool idea, and well-timed – between the impending holiday and people taking off work early to beat traffic, Thanksgiving week ranks only ahead of the dead week between Christmas and New Years in terms of productivity.  To that end, it’s guaranteed to bring web traffic – and it looks like AFP was content with that.

I’m not a witch who hates puppies

Elections are the talk of the internets today; but since it’s too late for new messages and polls haven’t closed yet, everything before about 8:00 p.m. EDT tonight is really just mindless chatter.

Water cooler talk this morning seems to center around the Republican chances for taking the Senate, and that inevitably turns to the campaign of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware – and you really can’t have that discussion without talking about the now-famous “I’m not a witch” ad:

Despite the criticism and ridicule O’Donnell received for this ad, the message was pretty appropriate.  With national Democrats and media outlets lambasting her past television appearances and outspoken commentary on morality issues, O’Donnell was in danger of being defined by the environment not only as an extreme candidate, but as a truly bizarre person.  So she targeted the infamous clip that was circulating where she talks about her dalliances with witchcraft and tried to shift focus on the “real issues” of the campaign.

The problem wasn’t in this message, but in her very serious, isn’t-this-election-just-the-most-important-thing-in-human-history tone.  Michael Steele did a pretty good job of this in his 2006 bid for a Maryland Senate seat:

The line from Steele’s ad that had everyone talking?  “By the way, I love puppies.”  It’s silly, but positive (and certainly not defensive, like “I’m not a witch”).  Steele went up to Delaware to help O’Donnell campaign, but maybe he should have had a discussion about diffusing negative ads.


Crist’s cross won’t make Meek jump, jump…

Earlier this week, the intrigue surrounding the Florida Senate race involved Bill Clinton’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get Kendrick Meek out of the race.  Now, it turns out, Charlie Crist was behind the whole thing – and tried to seal the deal by offering a cross as a gift.

Though 2010 is not a good year to have details of back-room political deals come out on the weekend before election day, Meek was so far out of the race it didn’t figure to hurt him.  But the inclusion of Crist in this bizarre dance – and his odd choice of Christian imagery – may just seal the deal on the race.  Rubio enjoys a near-20 point advantage in most polls, and has been trending up since August.

The question now becomes whether the stench of political horsetrading (especially with America’s honorary “first black President” trying to convince a black candidate to stand aside so a well-tanned-but-still-white candidate could defeat a Latino) will depress turnout among Democrats on Tuesday.


Wait – they have TV in Alaska now?

Do they ever.  And what a week it has been for Alaska political ads.

Just in time for Halloween, Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign has a new ad with former/late Sen. Ted Stevens, endorsing her from beyond the grave:

The good news for Murkowski is that the utter creepiness of the ad overshadows the fact that Stevens – who was drummed out of Congress under a cloud of ethics charges – is basically saying that Murkowski’s biggest asset is her incumbency.  That’s not the best message for the 2010 election cycle.  Also, if the biggest knock on Murkowski is that she’s a more self-serving than a self-sacrificing public servant, then cutting a commercial with footage of a dead guy seems to play right into her opponents’ hands.

Speaking of opponents, a Joe Miller ad launched this week spoofed the Old Spice body wash commercials from this summer – which is appropriate, because after watching Murkowski’s ad, you may feel like you need a shower:



Is Carly Fiorina the next Scott Brown?

The Carly Fiorina campaign has answered a question politics and tech bloggers have been asking of themselves for months: How will campaigns used location-based social networks?

Fiorina’s camp launched a location-based check-in iPhone app that lets users earn points checking in to rallies and other campaign events.  This is just a few days after Fiorina’s use of text messaging and a mobile-based phone bank system drew positive media coverage.  And, even though the story glosses over it just a bit, it’s worth noting that Fiorina’s app targets college students – an important piece of strategy, given that the general population is still getting used to mobile applications.

Earlier in the year, Scott Brown’s Massachusetts Miracle campaign was lauded for its use of remote phone banks and hyper-local online ads to identify key supporters and topple the ghost of Ted Kennedy.  If Fiorina pulls off a victory that would have been unthinkable a year ago, you can bet in the days after November 2 the interblogs will buzz about her online strategy.

It’s certainly a far cry from the Demon Sheep.