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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Two lessons for campaigns

One: The campaigns that won here in Wisconsin on Tuesday were the ones with the clear, unambiguous, crystalized messages--at least for the state-wide races. Consider:
  • The yes side of the amendment fight had a clear message the entire time--vote yes to "protect marriage." (I'm not saying I agree with it, I'm just using it as an example.) The no team, while they had just about the best GOTV efforts of anyone Tuesday, especially on the campuses, spent the last month of the campiagn muddying its message. The yes side stayed consistent, and no jumped from one message to another about the drawbacks of the second sentence, to keeping the status quo, to Tuesday's call about activist judges. The yes side's clearer message held out.

  • JB Van Hollen ran on a single clear message, too: He decided he was running for Batman. "I want to fight crime! I'll get the terrorists! I'll clear out the illegal immigrants! I want to date Commissioner Gordon's daughter!" I think it was a phony and misleading campaign (it took some kind of gall to suggest that a 14-year Assistant Attorney General didn't have the experience to be Attorney General). But Van Hollen stuck to it, unambiguously, and won even against a Democratic wave so large it knocked out Jack Voigt. On the plus side, Van Hollen will be so tired from fighting crime all night he won't do much damage during the daylight hours.

  • Mark Green's message through the whole campaign was an ill-defined "I'm not Jim Doyle" kind of thing. Green offered nothing beyond cookie-cutter Republican policies, borrowed or thieved from somewhere else. There was no bold, clear, unified message to truly distinguish himself from Doyle, or define himself without regard to Doyle. Even his attempts to ding Doyle for corruption failed, not least because he bore the stink of a corrupt Congress; throw in the fact that Tommy Thompson used to sell more state contracts by 9 AM than other governors do all day and, well, that didn't play with the voters. Doyle's initial message--Wisconsin is better off than it was four years ago--didn't seem to pay off, either. In fact, if you look at the polls leading up to election day, Doyle was having a hard time sealing the deal and couldn't get anything close to his actual vote total--until the last week. The last week, the issue became stem cells; the issue became Michael J. Fox. (I think the rape victim ad also helped crystalize it for Doyle's most key constituency, women.) Such clarity at the end attracted voters who, for 18 months of polling, weren't fully sold on Doyle.
So there it is: Find a clear and distinct theme, hammer it home, and don't muck it up.

Midday update: Seth makes this point much more eloquently today. By contrast, Jessica McBride, the professional pundit (!), sounds barely coherent trying to answer the question of why Green lost but Van Hollen won.


Two: There are, apparently, a lot of socially conservative Democrats in this state, Reagan Democrats, if you will. More than a quarter--getting near a third, maybe--of Doyle's vote total must have come from people who voted for the amendment. (A corollary: embryonic stem cell research doesn't seem to qualify as a social issue here.) I think that means a strong social agenda, including a repeal of our abortion ban in anticipation of a Roe challenge (as reader PK recommends in comments to this post), may not be the best way to start under new Dem managment in the legislature. Instead, I think the newly-empowered Wisconsin Dems need to look to economic issues--health care (which could have pro-woman positions, like eliminating the pharmacist "conscience" clause, for example), campaign finance reform, school funding reform, making UW more affordable again, and so on--as the way to begin the next legislature.

I'm sure that's not the end of what I think we should be taking away from this week. But it's what I've got for you this morning. The more I watch campaigns, and the people in them, the more I realize I should probably not tell people how to run their campaigns. Would the deicisions I would have made led to any different outcome? I don't know. But these two messages seem to stand out to me more than any others right now.

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