Democrats Don’t Campaign

Sep 20 '10

The following is a guest-post from “Robert Erikson”:http://www.columbia.edu/~rse14/:

bq. “White House “strenuously denies”:http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/42412.html NYT report that it is considering getting aggressive about winning the midterm elections.”

bq. At first I thought I was reading the Onion, but no, it was a “sarcastic comment”:http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2010/09/inspires_confidence.php on the blog Talking Points Memo. But the gist of the headline appears to be correct. Indeed, the New York Times reported that “White House advisers denied that a national ad campaign was being planned. ‘There’s been no discussion of such a thing at the White House.’”

bq. What do we make of this? Is there some hidden downside to actually running a national campaign? Of course, money spent nationally is not spent on targeted local campaigns. But that is always the case. What explains the Democrats’ trepidation about mounting a campaign and actually trying to woo voters?.

bq. Could this be the same timidity that prompts congressional Democrats to fear actually voting to retain the Bush tax cuts except for the top 3 percent of income? That policy is endorsed by most economists and is popular in all the polls. So why the fear? Are the Democrats seeking the approval of Fox News or the Tea Party? Do they think that they could win over a slew of millionaires by giving them the same tax breaks the Republicans want them to have?

bq. The fear of campaigning made even more puzzling when you consider the poll data. The Democrats may have plunged in favor but not to the extent people like the Republicans any better. On the generic ballot, the parties are virtually tied among registered voters. It is only when you take into account enthusiasm that the Republicans gain a decided edge. Why not try to enthuse all those unlikely but registered voters who must, by simple arithmetic, be mainly disillusioned Democrats?

bq. At this point I can only speculate regarding what is in the minds of Democratic strategists. Could it be that they are in the thrall of some bad political science theorizing? There is a theory out there in political science that goes as follows. When you mention an issue to voters, you prime them to think about the issue. And when they think about the issue they think fondly of the political party that “owns” the issue. So, on many issues, the lesson is “don’t go there.” For instance, any mention of taxes causes voters to think of taxes and thus stampede to the Republicans who own “taxes.” Democrats probably think they don’t own many issues now, except maybe Social Security, as they lie in wait to pounce if and when the Republicans step on that third rail.

bq. It is worth noting that the Republicans follow a different playbook. They are not afraid to campaign on their beliefs. And when the see an alleged strength of their opponents, they relentlessly attack on the very issues that Democrats supposedly own, thus reducing any Democratic edge.

bq. Ronald Reagan’s Republicans faced an adverse economy in the 1982 midterms. But they did not hesitate to run a national campaign, challenging the Democrats’ supposed advantage on economic policy with the slogan “Stay the Course.” Democrats can point out that the Republicans still lost House seats that year. But perhaps because they did make an effort to campaign, the 1982 Republicans (when Reagan was no more popular than Obama today) not only held their House seat loss to a minimum but actually lost no ground in the Senate.

bq. Other examples of this Republican strategy abound. In 2004, the Democrats thought they had neutralize the Republicans’ advantage on defense issues by nominating war hero John Kerry. But the Republicans aimed straight for the jugular, with the launch of the notorious Swiftboat ads. And in 2008, the Republicans countered Obama’s charisma with a set of ads mocking and trivializing Obama’s celebrity.

bq. What could a national Democratic ad campaign say in this Republican year? Democratic leaders generally believe that Obama’s policies staunched the bleeding from the Bush recession and that the Tea Party plan to starve the federal government would lead to economic disaster. For starters, the Democrats could try to sell wavering voters on the virtue of their own beliefs. If the Democrats offer only silence, voters will conclude that they have nothing worthwhile to say, that they implicitly confess to failure, and that it must be time for the other team to run things for a while. Why would the Democratic strategists want that?

I would only add a couple tidbits from my own research: perceptions of which party “owns” an issue are quite fluid, candidates routinely trespass on the other party’s alleged territory, and a party’s candidates are _not_ punished for talking about one of the “other party’s” issues. See “here”:http://home.gwu.edu/~jsides/agendas.pdf and “here”:http://home.gwu.edu/~jsides/conseq.pdf.