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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Monday Morning Quarterbacking on a Thursday Afternoon

The old saying that all hindsight is 20/20 has some truth. Now that Ken Cuccinelli has probably won the 37th District, it is time to go back and do a lessons learned for the future.

There were a few things that the Oleszek campaign could have done differently and more effectively in this very close race – one, btw which shouldn’t even have been close let alone lost.

Please understand, unlike some others, I don’t mean this as criticism or finger pointing at anybody in her campaign. The truth is if I had recognized these things myself sooner, I’d have shot an email to her or called her or Jonathan. I had plenty of access to both of them. So, I was as blind to the shortcomings during the campaign as anybody else.

However, here is the single most important thing I would have done differently now that I look back at it.

I never would have labeled Ken Cuccinelli as an extremist. There were two problems with this strategy. The first is that Ken is personable, witty, and nice. If you were an average voter and you received a piece of mail calling him extreme and then you met him, you would simply discount the mailer as political hype. Most people barely read the stuff they receive because they are too busy and they get too much junk mail. They also don’t believe half the claims in TV ads because they’re smart enough to know both sides are bashing each other because they think it will help them win.

The other problem with calling people names is that most people don’t respond well to the obvious nastiness of “toxic labeling.”

A much more effective strategy to get the same message across would be to be more factual and “show rather than tell” the voter. How do you do this?

You take a few examples of unpopular votes that Ken has cast, or bills that he sponsored, and then draw the conclusion that he is out of step with his district. But first present the evidence. And then be more moderate in your assessment. In fact, given his personality, it might even be wise to start by admitting that he’s nice, charming and smart. But he’s not really in synch with the community’s views and values. Claiming he is “out of step” resonates more with voters than labeling him “extreme.” It will also match their expectation should he actually show up at their door acting reasonable. And by conceding his strong points, it would make Janet seem more rational and believable.

The other thing that is necessary is actually matching the voters’ concerns and not talking past them.

As an example, after pointing out Ken’s anti-abortion positions, instead of promising to protect a woman’s right to choose, Janet could have pointed out how Ken was more concerned with pursuing divisive wedge issues than solving practical problems. She then could have pledged to work for solutions to Virginia’s transportation problems rather than fighting the culture wars. Putting that twist on the issue would have been a more effective way to go.

The reason for this is that most women don’t feel threatened by Ken’s anti-abortion stances. They are pro choice in his district. But the truth is that their right to abortion and birth control just doesn’t appear to be under any real threat.

Until the Supreme Court actually overturns Roe v Wade (which it very well could some time in the future), nobody is going to feel threatened. It’s simply viewed as an irrelevant issue because people feel secure about these particular rights.

But if you tell them that Ken’s dedication to that issue causes him to be distracted from finding solutions to their real problems that would stir them up. It would also show that Janet was more in touch with their real concerns than Ken.

Also, during the debates Janet needed to come up with more substantive answers to issues like transportation. Failing to do so was the big mistake that hurt her performance.

The most damaging question asked her was whether she would have voted for the current transportation plan if she had been in office. It really harmed her campaign that she refused to respond fully, insisting that she couldn’t answer hypotheticals.

It would have been more effective to simply say she never would have voted for this plan.

She should have insisted that she would have worked for a different plan, explained what she was in favor of as an alternative, and then never budged from it. If she was pressed further, then she could have said that she couldn’t answer the hypothetical because she really believed she would have been more effective at crafting a compromise and so wouldn’t have had to make that choice. Period! End of discussion no matter how many times she was pressed. Once you’ve given a substantive answer you are not obligated to elaborate on it and beat it to death just because somebody keeps badgering you. You just stick to the answer until they get tired and move on.

However, at that point, had she been the one who wanted to move on, she could credibly have turned the question on Ken. Why didn’t he work harder to craft a better compromise?

She should also have been more aggressive during the debate at pointing out that although Ken claimed to want to change the funding formulas so that NoVa residents received more of their tax dollars back from the state, he failed to deliver. She should have pressed him by reminding him that he was a member of the party in power. If he couldn’t bring home a better funding formula while the Republican Party was in charge, why did he think he would do better if the party changed hands, which everybody knew was a real possibility. She could have pushed the fact that he didn’t get along with his own moderate leadership so he surely wouldn’t be effective if Democrats took over.

And finally, there is no substitute for coming up with clear, specific positions and policies. A candidate has got to take some risks by putting out an agenda for people to see and vote on. I don’t believe Northern Virginia voters would have voted against raising money to fix problems as long as they were convinced that the candidate proposing it would be a good steward of their tax money, use it wisely and raise it cautiously.

In short, my advice to a candidate would be this.

You have to convince them that you have good judgment and won’t try to break the bank. Virginians respond to fiscal responsibility. Persuade them of that and don’t disappoint them when you are in office. Be honest about the funding you need, the limitations on what you can do with what you have and present them with a clear plan, including how much it costs, to improve things. Above all, address their real needs and interests rather than tilting at ideological windmills.

And that would be the winning formula for the 37th District. In fact, it would probably work in most areas but especially there.


afausser said...


AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thank you.

Paradox13VA said...

One of the best lines from the Burk-Clem campaign was Kelly's closing remarks at a LWV debate. "Mr. Clem is a very nice man, I am a very nice woman. That is not the issue."

It is helpful to acknowledge and then dismiss the opponent's strengths.

Great analysis!

Catzmaw said...

Thank you for a very well-reasoned post with a cogent political analysis.

I, too, have been confounded by the odd belief by Democratic campaign managers that all that's needed to sway the female vote is to complain about Republican extremists seeking to reverse Roe v. Wade. As someone who has serious philosophical issues with abortion but does not wish to be a one issue voter this argument has absolutely no appeal for me. I suspect the same for other women who are also generally Democratic in orientation but have never fully embraced the pro-choice position. Moreover, by putting all the eggs in the pro-choice basket for voters who have this problem the campaign alienates them. A pro-life leaning Democrat is put on the spot and made to feel that a vote for the Democratic candidate is a vote for abortion rather than a vote for the person who is best suited to deal with the transportation or health care crises. And you are correct that the fact is that Roe v. Wade is currently the law of the land and not likely going anywhere anytime soon. There is no political value to drawing a line in the sand in this fashion and a definite political detriment.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thank you Catzmaw. It's true that a lot of good Democrats are troubled by the abortion issue. They don't want to see abortion made illegal or become a dangerous back alley procedure. But they are uncomfortable with the morality of it too. I share those concerns and that ambiguity.

Also, even the most pro-choice voter, at this point, except for groups like NARAL, which are one issue interest groups, don't feel threatened that they are going to lose this right.

Face it, after the Reagan years, the Bush I and Bush II years, the anti-abortionists do not seem closer to their goal yet.

Again, Roe could be overturned. Then you will see this come back as an issue that gets attention. But until that time (and that time also might never come)it's not a pressing concern for most voters.

Shifting the argument from "I'll protect your right to choose" to "somebody like Ken Cuccinelli is more concerned about this than solving practical problems that affect voters, like transportation" works better. It's using his weakness against him while addressing what voters are really concerned about.

Having said that, I did not see it or point it out soon enough to make a difference so I'm not going to blame the rest of Janet's campaign either. As I said, hindsight is always 20/20.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, but it leaves out one fact, which is, let's face it, no campaign builds a communications strategy without first doing a poll--and the Oleszek camp must have decided to go with the choice issue because it was jumping out at them from the poll. So I think your assumption that people (not just women, men have a stake in these issues too, especially since guys like Cuccinelli won't stop at abortion but will go after contraception as well) don't think protecting our most private decisions from government interference is important is a false assumption.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I tend to doubt the issue was jumping out at them in a poll unless it was a badly worded poll or otherwise flawed.

Most Democrats simply believed it was Ken's weakest point. He's known as the most conservative Republican in Fairfax. His district is turning blue. And his passion is the social issues. So the Dems went for the weakest spot in his armor.

But most voters really don't care about the abortion issue simply because they don't believe they are going to lose that right. Not because they agree with Ken.

The Dem strategy should have been to go for Ken's strongest advantage, not his weakest issue. They could have used the anti- abortion issue not by trying to instill fear that women will lose the right but by suggesting that Ken spent more time fighting for divisive wedge issues than solving the transportation crisis or working on other issues that are more important to voters.

Janet talked past people's real concerns.

And I'm not saying that people's perception that abortion is safe is true. I think this Supreme Court could overturn Roe. But it's not on people's radar yet.

Generally, if you can take out a candidate by turning his strongest advantage against him, you'll have a better chance to succeed. So, if you start by acknowleging Ken is likable and smart, but then talk about how he's more concerned with issues about which nobody cares rather than solving their problems, you've got a winning strategy.

Again, I'm only seeing this in hindsight too. I thought emphasizing his extremism on abortion and birth control would be effective too.

Not Larry Sabato said...

My understanding is by jumping out in the poll, anonymous means the district was overwhelmingly pro-choice. DUH!!!! The problem is Janet's campaign manager didn't know how to read a poll and made a Jerry Kilgore error- which is assuming b/c people agree with your candidate on an issue they are actually going to vote on it.

Anonymous said...

you don't think they asked what issues people were most concerned about in the poll, and used that to determine what to talk about?

go back to your site and calling people names Ben, you're better at that.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Exactly my point NLS. That's not the issue that was overwhelmingly on people's minds. They were more concerned with transportation, education, and health care.

People may be overwhelmingly pro choice in the 37th but unless there was an effective threat to it, which there is not, that's not going to motivate them to come out and vote.

If you have a poll, you don't just ask people if they favor or oppose an issue. You also poll to see how it ranks as a concern. If that had been done, would it have been the number one issue? The tenth issue on a a list? Or even the last? Would it have ranked above transportation and education as issues of concern?

My point was that Janet needed to use the issue differently. Instead of trying to get people to vote for her to save their right to choice - a right they didn't think was in danger to start with - she should have simply used it to say that Ken often used his time to work on divisive social issues rather than fixing the problems they really care about and she wouldn't do that. She'd focus on practical issues.

Same issue, Ken is too conservative on abortion. But cast slightly differently to convince people her priorities were more in line with theirs.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is a Woman, first off I want to apologize to you for only ever commenting when I disagree with you. It's probably tremendously annoying, but at least I blend in with other anonymous commenters who sometimes agree, right?

"The old saying that all hindsight is 20/20 has some truth."

No it doesn't. It might have a shade of occassional, infrequent truth, but more often than not, hindsight only *appears* 20/20 because it has the virtue of never being subjected to the same sort of vigorous testing that reality will provide for foresight. Instead of talking about what Janet coulda/shoulda/woulda, I think it's better and more valuable to talk about the strategic and tactical failures of Janet's campaign. That we can at least observe and in some cases quantify.

You're correct in that Janet's commentary on Ken's "extremism" was possibly too over-the-top and hyperbolic to be truly effective for moderate democrats and independents. However, we must also recognize that by focusing the campaign on social issues like abortion or gay marriage, we helped strengthen Ken Cuccinelli with his base of support. While successful Democratic candidates around the state forced Republican incumbents to fight for their base (particularly over the transportation package, abuser fees, unelected regional tax authorities, etc), Janet Oleszek's campaign went out of its way to paint all of Ken's supporters into the same corner, where they proceeded to rally together.

This would not have been an irrecoverable error had Janet's campaign simply been better at activating voters on Election Day. In all honesty, GOTV might have been their strong suit, considering how close they came in spite of such poor communications. But their organization was simply not good enough to get it done.

As I said, I am never one to argue that hindsight is 20/20 because it's far to easy to assume that an untried strategy would have worked better than a strategy that *was* tried, but failed. Instead, I think the lesson we should take from Janet's loss is: ALWAYS make your opponent fight for his base. Even if you think your base is bigger than his, there's never any reason to make election day harder on yourself than it has to be.

Anonymous said...

I have an unusual perspective considering I do considering myself a bit of a political junkie. I have been out of the country for the majority of the year in an area that did not afford me the ability to look at politics. I returned roughly two weeks before the election and found a barrage of fliers for both candidates. Reading the collection I discovered I had to idea why I should vote for a candidates but had multiple reasons why I shouldn't. I can't remember a single flier that offered any specific reason to vote for either of them. There was no positive message that I saw. I did not see the debate (or watch much TV so I didn't see the ads). Janet's campaign was simple: Ken is too extreme. Ken campaign was simple: I am experienced and Janet isn't ready to be Senator. In such a case it appears that Janet failed to make a case of why she would better represent the district. As you said earlier: abortion might fire up the grassroots but most people aren't worried about it either way. It remains a wedge issue. I did have the chance to speak to Janet's husband on election day and spoke about the same issues and I appreciated his time and wish him and Janet the best of luck.

Tony said...

As Anonymous Is A Woman said in the Mason Conservative - about her and my views on the Janet issue - I do agree - she and I probably agree on more things than not regarding Janet's reasons for losing...I have voted for democrats in many races in the past - when I lived in Alexandria, I was a big fan of Dana Kauffman when he was the supervisor of my district...he got things done and anytime I spoke with him on an issue, he was vote for him had little to do with his being a Democrat.

Same with Ken - he has been responsive to most folks as far as I can tell, on issues that matter to them. I would not have even cared about the race - nor would I have mobilized my friends against Janet - had it not been for her negative mailings...and then at the end with NLS even dropping the bomb that it was not Ken's crew that messed up Janet's sign - what more did people need to know that Janet and her crew were dishonest and out of touch?

What I believe hurt Ken most of all was the one issue that Janet hit upon, but then fell of off - and that was his vote that allowed the abusive driver fees to go into law...I believe had she not made the "waffle" comment at the Springfield debate, which effectively resulted in her having to abandon it as an issue since it would have reminded people of her own gaff when ever she brought it up - which Ken did in his advertisments - fair game as far as I am concerned; he turned the issue against her - an issue that she could have beat him on hands down had she played it right...

I believe a whole lot of folks in the district did remember that Ken did vote for the abusive driver fees...and this, more than his position on conservative issues, is what hurt him...

I do have a judgment that Janet being a hard line socialist had a negative effect on her campaign and was a factor in her defeat - a judgment that Anonymous Is A Woman does not agree with me on - I still believe that Janet, despite her statements of representing the majority of the views of the people in the 37th district, did not fool most of the folks in the district as it was clear that Janet is a "progressive" democrat...which is, in most folks view, an extreme position to have.

Anonymous said...

"and then at the end with NLS even dropping the bomb that it was not Ken's crew that messed up Janet's sign - what more did people need to know that Janet and her crew were dishonest and out of touch?"

We have no evidence that Ben knows anything more about the sign than you or I..

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't need to say this, but a single blog post two days before the election didn't blow the doors off this one.

By the way, Tony, I've got a call from 1960s on the other line, it's Barry Goldwater, he wants his "Democrats are hard-line socialists" status quo Cold War domestic political rhetoric back. Should I tell him he can have it, or are you still using it?