(Bill Pascoe/In the Right) – A referendum, or a choice?
That’s the question on which the 2010 election cycle will turn, according to the Conventional Wisdom — will the election be a referendum on the record of the last year and a half, compiled under and implemented by one-party Democratic control of Washington (as the commentariat suggests Republicans want)? Or will it be a choice between two governing philosophies, represented by Barack Obama and the Democrats on the one hand, and (President George W. Bush and) Republicans on the other (as the Democrats clearly desire)?
In fact, this “question” — “a referendum, or a choice?” — misses the point by a Shania Twain mile.
There are only two kinds of elections: Elections in which an incumbent is running for reelection, and elections for an open seat, with no incumbent.
In elections where an incumbent is running for reelection, the campaign is always a referendum on the incumbent’s performance in office. Voters ask themselves a simple question: Does this guy deserve another term in office, or not?
The incumbent’s task is simple — convince one half of the voters plus one that he/she deserves another term in office. The challenger’s job is more difficult — he/she must first convince a majority of the electorate that the incumbent deserves to be fired, and then must close the sale by persuading that majority that he/she is a credible alternative.
In elections where there is no incumbent running for reelection, voters will make a choice between two candidates, each of whom offers a contrasting governing vision.
In both cases, the elections are about choices … and the campaigns are about contrasts.
So the right question to ask is, just what is the contrast Republicans will offer to continued one-party rule by the Democrats in Washington? Translated into language that voters understand, what will be different if Republicans take control?
To answer that question, let’s pretend you’ve just been hired to run the communications operation of a Republican challenger for the House of Representatives.
You’ve been asked to sit with the campaign’s senior strategists, to determine the campaign’s communications strategy for the upcoming campaign.
Gathered around the table are the candidate (and, often, his/her spouse), the campaign’s manager, pollster, media consultant, and communications director and/or press secretary.
As communications adviser, it’s your meeting, so you begin with a simple question: What is our message box?
A message box, for those who haven’t actually worked on a campaign, is a simple device used to test the strength of all the messages voters are likely to hear during the course of a campaign.
If you’re playing along at home, take out a piece of paper, and divide it into quadrants, labeled as follows: “Us on Us,” “Us on Them,” “Them on Us,” and “Them on Them.”
In the upper left quadrant, “Us on Us,” write down all the positive things your side is going to say about your own candidate. Examples: “Fresh and young,” “proven job creator,” “has run a successful business,” “conservative,” “strong family values,” etc.
In the upper right quadrant, “Us on Them,” write down all the negative things your side is going to say about your opponent. Examples: “Been there too long,” “never worked in the private sector — doesn’t know how to budget in the real world,” “voted for the biggest tax hike in history,” “More liberal than Ted Kennedy,” “weak on national security,” etc.
Taken together, the “Us on Us” and “Us on Them” boxes should include all the messages your campaign will send to the electorate. If you cannot devise a simple message containing enough positive elements about your candidate and negative elements about your opponent to win over a majority of the electorate on the issues the electorate cares about enough to use them when making their voting decisions, go back to the drawing board and try it again.
Congratulations. Now you’ve settled on your campaign’s messages. That’s more than a lot of campaign can say.
But your team is only half-done, because campaign messaging does not take place in a vacuum. Sadly, the other side gets a say, too.
So now that you’re figured out what it is your side is going to say, smart campaign strategists will try to predict what the other side will say — that is, you get to fill out their message box, too.
Their “Them on Us” box — where you predict what they’re likely to say about your candidate — could contain items like the following: “Inexperienced,” “corporate fat cat,” “heartless,” and “intolerant.”
And their “Them on Them” box — where you predict what they’re likely to say about their own candidate — could include items like “A proven track record,” “Respected,” “Works across the aisle,” and “tolerant and inclusive.”
Now take those bullet points and write them out in simple sentences — “experienced” becomes “He’s got the experience necessary to make tough choices,” and “corporate fat cat” becomes “He’s far more concerned with lining his cronies’ pockets than he is with the struggles of the average family in this district,” while “inexperienced” becomes “He won’t have any seniority, and won’t know how to deliver for the district” and “intolerant” becomes “He’s more concerned about raising dollars from the Religious Right than he is with embracing all God’s children.”
At the end of the exercise, if done properly, the piece of paper should contain all the messages voters are going to hear during the campaign, from both sides.
Based on what we’ve been seeing and hearing from Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders, the Democrats have already figured out their side of their own message box.
The Democrats’ “Us on Us” box includes the following: “We’re making great progress in turning around the economic mess we inherited,” “We’ve moved from losing 700,000 jobs per month to a place where we’re now creating jobs again,” “Our stimulus package created or saved 3 million jobs,” and “We’re fighting for average Americans against the evils of the greedy insurance companies, Corporate Fat Cats, and Wall Street bankers.”
Their “Us on Them” box includes the following: “Last time Republicans had the keys to the car, they drove it into a ditch. You don’t want to go back to that, do you?” and “Two words: President Bush.”
So the Democrats’ message box is filled out already. And, as the home team, they’re going to have the bully pulpit of the White House and a spending advantage of close to 2-to-1 to communicate that message.
Back to you, sitting at the table with the other senior strategists: What will you say to counter the Democrats?
The good news is, GOP congressional leaders have already filled out the GOP “Us on Them” box for you: “Remember (White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel’s axiom — ‘Never let a crisis go to waste.’ Democrats used the financial crisis to ram through the biggest expansion of government since the Great Depression, and put our grandchildren in hock to do it,” “We’re now borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend, putting our children and grandchildren in debt to the Chinese,” “The Democrats will double our national debt in five years and triple it in ten,” “The Democrats’ Big Government takeover of health care will hike your taxes, reduce your ability to see the doctor of your choice, and could cause your employer to throw you out of your current coverage, even if you like it,” and “For the first time since before Jimmy Carter was President, the Congress has failed to pass a budget — and with all their borrowing and spending, it’s easy to see why.”
So your “Us on Them” box is pretty much taken care of. You will, of course, have specific circumstances unique to your opponent and your race that you’ll add to the mix, but the generic “Us on Them” message is set.
In congressional districts where there are so many more Republicans than there are Democrats and Independents that winning every Republican vote is all that is necessary for victory, that simple “Us on Them” message may be enough to get your candidate over the line.
But given that polls are telling us that only one in five voters is willing to tell a pollster that he/she identifies himself/herself as a Republican, those districts are few and far between. You can count them on your fingers and toes … and you won’t have to unlace your shoes. In the overwhelming majority of districts that are in play in this cycle, winning the lion’s share of the Independent vote will be crucial to victory for Republican candidates.
So, what will your “Us on Us” box say? This, after all, is the nub of the matter — poll after poll indicates that these Independent voters have decided they don’t like the Democrats’ policy agenda, but they’re ignorant of the Republicans’ agenda.
Actually, “ignorant” isn’t the right word — it implies that there is a GOP policy agenda, and Independents simply haven’t taken the time to educate themselves yet. The fact is, GOP congressional leaders have yet to settle on a governing agenda to offer the voters — in fact, they haven’t even decided if they will offer an alternative governing agenda — so it’s hard to blame Independents for not knowing what it is.
Is it enough to fill the “Us on Us” quadrant with a simple “We’re not them — see our ‘Us on Them’ argument?”
Remember, Independents these days think only slightly better of Republicans than they do of Democrats.
Congressional Republicans, after all, were present at the creation of the current spending binge — the single issue that is driving the Independent vote. Remember Medicare Part D, the single biggest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society? Remember the Bridge to Nowhere, and all the earmarked pork it represented? Remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid for with borrowed dollars?
Yes, yes, I know — your boss is a Republican challenger, which means, by definition, that he/she is not now a Member of Congress. And unless his name is Steve Chabot, or Charlie Bass, or Steve Pearce, or Tim Wahlberg — former GOP Congressmen now running to reclaim the seats they once held — your boss wasn’t around back then, and he/she had nothing to do with that earlier Republican fiscal diarrhea.
But he/she is still the local nominee of the Republican Party, and that means your candidate carries that brand with him/her in your campaign. And that means you’ve got to do something to convince Independents and even right-thinking Democrats that he/she is not going to be like those old Republicans who ran up the tab in an earlier day.
So … you sign the Americans for Tax Reform “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” and you sign the Club for Growth’s “Repeal It” pledge. For good measure, you sign the Americans for Prosperity “No Climate Tax” pledge, and you might even find your way to the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste and sign their “No Earmark” pledge.
But your Democratic opponent is clever — he/she has, after all, been a practicing politician a lot longer than you have. So he/she says, “pledge, schmedge — who cares what he says? The GOP leadership in Congress isn’t taking those pledges, and they’re not offering any vision or agenda of their own. That’s what counts, after all, because this guy would just be a freshman with no power at all. He’ll have no seniority, and won’t know how to deliver for the district.” (Remember their message box?)
So until and unless the GOP congressional leadership decides to take up the challenge of crafting an alternative governing vision, you, as a GOP House challenger, are stuck. You get the downside of the tainted GOP brand without any of the upside of a unified team effort and messaging operation.
Asked on “Meet the Press” yesterday about the GOP governing agenda, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn alluded to the President’s debt and deficit commission, and said he’d be anxious to see what the commission recommended on December 1. Host David Gregory tossed that answer right back at him as if it were a live grenade — a Republican Senator was suggesting he’d wait to hear what a Democratic President’s commission had to say?
It’s answers like that that leave conservatives — and more than a few Independents — scratching their heads and wondering, really? Is this the best we can do?
And back at campaign headquarters, you’re still wondering: What do we put in the “Us on Us” box?