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The Democrats' Midterm Message Problem

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There's a rough consensus about why Democrats were pulverized in the midterm elections: losing Democratic candidates didn't have a succinct positive message. To understand this problem, it's informative to dissect the campaigns of three incumbent Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2014: Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, and Mark Udall.

If you were their Republican opponent -- Mike McFadden in Minnesota, Scott Brown in New Hampshire, and Cory Gardiner in Colorado -- you had a relatively simple message: "My opponent votes with Barack Obama 99 percent of the time; a vote for my opponent is a vote for President Obama." The Republican's objective was to capitalize on Obama's unpopularity in order to turn out their base and suppress other voters. (Before the election it was well established that Republicans were more enthusiastic about the midterm election than were Democrats.)

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In Minnesota the Republican strategy meant that Mike McFadden had to fire up the GOP base (roughly 46 percent of the electorate) and keep Democrats (roughly 53 percent) from supporting Franken. This didn't happen: Franken retained his 53 percent while McFadden got only 43 percent. (However, the Minnesota House flipped from Democratic control to Republican).

At the beginning of the election season, many people thought that Al Franken's Minnesota Senate seat was in peril. But Franken ended up winning because he didn't run away from President Obama. He supported the President on some issues (healthcare) and disagreed with him on others (response to ISIS). Most important, Franken had a succinct positive message: "Fighting for Minnesota Jobs." In the process Franken borrowed a great line used by the late Minnesota Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone "We all do better when we all do better."

The story in New Hampshire is similar to that of Minnesota but the voting demographics were more difficult: 27 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican, and 43 percent undeclared. To win, either Jeanne Shaheen or Scott Brown had to retain their base and pick up undeclared voters. Shaheen prevailed, winning 52 percent of the vote, by holding her base (96 percent) and picking off 51 percent of undeclared voters. (By the way, in New Hampshire more registered Democrats voted than did registered Republicans.)

Shaheen characterized herself as an independent politician fighting for New Hampshire jobs. "Jeanne's leadership brings people together around common sense solutions, breaking gridlock to get things done." During a debate with Scott Brown, Shaheen was asked if she approved of the job Barack Obama was doing; she responded, "In some ways I approve, and some things I don't approve."

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Like Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen depicted herself as a job creator. (In addition, Shaheen ran an extremely effective ad linking her opponent, Scott Brown, to job outsourcing.)

The demographics in Colorado were similar to those in New Hampshire: 31 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republican and 36 percent unaffiliated. The Republican candidate Cory Gardiner defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall by 2.5 percentage points (50 thousand votes) because he held his base (93 percent) and carried the unaffiliated vote (50 percent). (Udall lost even though Democrats had a better turnout than they did in the 2010 midterm election.)

Of these three incumbent Senators, Mark Udall made the greatest effort to distance himself from President Obama -- in July, Udall skipped a Denver fundraiser for his campaign featuring Obama.

Nonetheless, most observers agree that Mark Udall lost in Colorado because he didn't run a positive campaign focusing on jobs and the economy. Instead, the thrust of the Democrat's campaign was to paint his opponent as too extreme: "Cory Gardner has been lying to Colorado about his extreme agenda. He tells Coloradans one thing now, but he spent his career doing the exact opposite. In Congress, Gardner continues to sponsor a personhood bill that would ban common forms of birth control and outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest."

Udall's reelection strategy caused the DENVER POST to decry the Democrat's "obnoxious, one-issue campaign" and to endorse Gardiner. On election night one Udall supporter admitted, "I voted for [Udall]"[But] I don't think it was a positive campaign and that was upsetting."

In these three states, Republicans accused the Democratic incumbent of voting with Obama "99 percent of the time." (It was the standard GOP barb wherever a Democratic incumbent was involved.) Franken and Shaheen finessed this tactic, but Udall didn't. In each state there were anti-incumbent ads heavily funded by Republican dark money groups -- Colorado was the second most expensive Senate race at $94M and New Hampshire was the eighth most expensive at $47M.

Nonetheless, looking back on these three races, it seems that Franken and Shaheen won because they had a succinct positive message and Udall didn't. In Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Colorado, Democrats turned out. What decided the races in New Hampshire and Colorado were the votes of independents. In Colorado they weren't moved by Udall's negative campaign.

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Looking forward to 2016, what happened in Colorado serves as an important lesson for Democrats. Winning Democratic candidates must have a succinct positive message.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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