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We Report... You Deride

Friday, November 12, 2004  
Three Simple Rules For Beating a President

Yes, I think John Kerry lost the election. And, yes, we do need to talk about why. It's good that everyone has been talking about pulling together in the wake of the defeat. And a nasty public bloodletting only gives the wingnuts the joy of schadefreude.

But if you don't understand what went wrong, you're likely to make the same mistakes again. And I'd just as soon not lose again, thank you. And this doesn't have to be vicious.

In 32 years of work on campaigns, I have learned three simple rules:

1. A re-election campaign is always a referendum on the incumbent. The candidates aren't on an even footing-- the choice isn't "Who do we want to pick?" but "Do we want to keep this guy?"

2. Incumbents rarely lose. Voters dislike uncertainty and they hate to admit they made a mistake. The urge to maintain the status quo-- to say "things really aren't that bad"-- is why most incumbents ger re-elected.

You can't win by hoping that an incumbent's gaffes will wipe them out. Unless it is glaringly obvious that an elected official is entirely to blame for something-- and the issue is an open-and-shut case-- he or she will be reelected.

3. Point two being the case, if a challenger loses, it means he or she didn't make a compelling case for change to enough voters.

That can happen because people felt things were going well and didn't see any reason to change. It can happen because the challenger got outspent and the message for change wasn't heard.

Since neither of those things were true about Bush-Kerry, it leaves only one other option: the challenger didn't do the job right.

I have seen challengers try dozens of different strategies to take out an incumbent, I have only seen one that has ever worked consistently. It has three very simple components:

1. This is what the incumbent is doing wrong.. You can't win without being negative-- voters won't make a change without it-- and it must be easy to understand and agree with. Negative is about 25% of the battle.

2. This is what I can do right. This is the positive message. The challenger has some new ideas or different skills (which the incumbent lacks) that will make things better. The positive message also has to be easy to digest; it's also 25% of the package.

I don't think Kerry per se did well on either count. But he wasn't out there alone, either. The combination of Kerry-Edwards, the DNC and the 527s did a great job on the negatives. He won that battle.

The positive ads, frankly, stunk. But since W. didn't have anything positive to say, I'd call that one pretty even.

So why'd he lose? Because he completely blew the third leg of the tripod-- the part of the message that's the most important one:

3. There is a fundamental difference between me and the incumbent and this difference is why you must elect me.

The ability to draw a sharp, clear contrast-- what some people call the "change message"-- is the thing that wins elections. If you can sum up the difference between the two of you in ten words or less-- and people agree-- you win.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter boiled the differences between himself and Gerald Ford to one proposition: "I think Washington has become corrupt and out of touch with our values and I want to change it. My opponent does not."

Four years later, he lost because Ronald Reagan turned the election into a referendum on a clear vision for the country and strong leadership. In 1984, thanks to the suicidal decision to nominate Carter's vice-president, Reagan was able to say "Re-elect me unless you want to go back to the way things used to be."

And you'll never get a better example of how this strategy works than those legendary 13 words from the 1992 campaign:

Negative: The economy, stupid.

Contrast: Change v. more of the same.

Positive: Don't forget health care.

You'd have to go back to "Give 'em Hell, Harry" or Lenin's "Bread, Peace, Land" to do better.

Kerry lost because he couldn't or wouldn't come up with a tough, clear contrast between himself and W. The closest he came-- at least, the one he repeated most often-- was "George W. Bush won't work with other governments to fix Iraq-- I will."

Not a terribly whelming message in and of itself. The Bush message-- "I have conservative moral values and he doesn't" was simpler, it covered a lot more ground and it was exactly what at least some people wanted to hear.

In his relentless quest to sound reasonable and presidential-- to not polarize the contest and risk offending people who weren't going to vote for him anyway, the two winning themes he had:

1. "This president conceals facts, tells lies and threatens people who tries to tell the American people the truth. Elect me if you want honest government."

2. "The president never admits mistakes and refuses to change course no matter how bad things get. Elect me if you thing things are going wrong and you want to change."

I know he said both things at times. He didn't say them often enough or loudly enough or clearly enough and he didn't make them the rock on which he built his campaign.

Which was better? They both would have worked, but option #2 was much, much better because it also addressed Kerry's biggest weakness-- his perceived tendency to flip-flop.

Most contrast themes are vague and hackneyed. The thing that makes them work are the issues and feelings you can tie them to. The ability to say one simple thing-- which voters can interpret in many different ways-- is what wins.

Take Clinton's "change v. more of the same." They're not original. If you take them literally, they don't mean anything. And they're potentially naive. Going from the frying pan to the fire isn't making things better.

What made them a genious strategy was they hit on so many levels:

* People thought the economy was getting worse and that George Bush hadn't done anything to fix the problems.

* Congress was struggling to get meaningful legislation passed and Bush was vetoing the stuff that did come out, like extensions of the Clean Air and Voting Rights acts.

* Bush had continued-- in fact, enhanced-- some of the most noxious social policies of the Reagan administration. (Specifically, the court appointments.)

* Bush won the 1988 election by relentlessly sliming his opponent.

So every time Bill Clinton said "change v. more of the same", people heard the words "jobs and inflation", "gridlock", "Clarence Thomas" and "Willie Horton."

When you can say one thing and mean four, you've got a killer message.

But it got even better than that, because every time Bush used one of his attacks, he simultaneously made Clinton's case. Every time he used the words "tax and spend", "big government", "liberal" and "character", he just drilled home the "this guy just isn't going to change" message.

Had Kerry hammered W. for being arrogant and stubborn and continuing to dig holes, the flip-flop charge starts to boomerang because it reminds voters that W. believes he's never made a mistake.

Better yet, it gives Kerry the chance to gut Bush on experience, judgment, being trapped in the politics of the past:

"Folks, I've been working for change since the 70's and the things we've seen in that time have been incredible. We've seen nations rise and fall, some movements end and others begin. We've all had to adapt to meet these new challenges and question a lot of our old assumptions about people and policies.

"So, yeah, I've changed my mind about some things in the last 30 years. Sometimes I've changed the way I voted because times have changed. I'm not ashamed of that because it's important to change when you need to. The safety of our country and the future of our children depend on it.

"Maybe the problem is that the president hasn't been in politics that long, so he isn't aware of all the changes. And because he wasn't involved, he hasn't seen what can happen to nations and leaders who aren't ready to change."

Which gives you the opening you need to hammer people who don't change, even when the facts show that they're wrong. And that opens up theme two: how the only person worse than someone who won't admit he's wrong is someone who lies and covers up and bullies and threatens the people who try to speak up, so they can make sure no one finds out the truth.

You get to hit the "dumb" issue without actually saying it. You can talk about how W. spent 2001 focusing on missile defense instead of terrorism because he was trapped in the policies of the past, and he's in Iraq because he hasn't realized that, in the decade since the Gulf War. Osama bin Laden has become a greater danger than Saddam Hussein.

You get to say that the tax cuts were a good idea when we thought we had a huge surplus (so I'm lying-- bite me, I'm trying to get elected) but they stopped being a good idea when we started running deficits and we had a recession.

When you need to go positive, you talk about how some things haven't changed. Things like truth, justice, the American way and the NATO alliance. You can bloviate at length about how containment tied up the Soviet Union and brought them down ("a threat far more imminent and far more deadly than Osama bin Laden"). It's all good.

Then if you're dead-set on talking about fxing Iraq by becoming butt-buddies with the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, then you can do that.

Problem is that you can't do any of that unless you have people a lot smarter and more in touch with the country than "Massachusetts Bob" Shrum running your campaign.

I'm going to enjoy only two things in the next four years. One is watch W's house of cards implode. The other is sneering at the people who told me that I'd cruelly and foolishly misjudged a brilliant political mind. Cold comfort, really-- but it's all we got at the moment.

11:06 PM

More Rewarding Than a Rectal Probe

It's a humbling occasion when you realize just how flawed you really are. In a stunning display of my lack of character, I went dark months ago because people connected to the Kerry campaign were beginning to suspect me.

I should have let myself get fired. But I drank the Atrios/Kos Kool-Aid: "This election is so important that we all must all doodily-doo, doodily-doo what we must, muddily-must, muddily-must."

As a result, I actually followed instructions given to me by people who reported to Bob Shrum. Worse than that, I kept telling myself that my judgment of events and issues might be totally wrong-- that these people might possibly know more than I did.

It's humbling to realize that you're really that gullible. But at least I know I'm not driven by a blind ambition. Because I didn't for a moment believe that John Kerry would win.

More on that later. Right now, let me just show you this really neat T-shirt I got on the trip:

I'm tired of eating a bullet so you can eat your cake.

2:58 AM

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