It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts on last Tuesday’s mid-terms. It was a profound defeat for the Democrats, not simply because of the loss in the Senate and the gains in the House (the largest Republican margin since 1929), but because of decisive victories in state legislatures and governorships.
From an objective policy perspective, the Democrats don’t deserve this type of treatment. It took a costly, ill-advised war in Iraq and the biggest financial meltdown in a century for voters to sour on the Republican party. By contrast, the list of Democratic party sins seem tiny in comparison (a health care plan that has produced mixed results, a mixed economic picture and an unsteady yet uneventful foreign policy). Stepping back, it’s hard to understand why voters are so angry that a vast majority want the Republicans back in charge.
What I keep circling back to is branding. The biggest failing of the current Democratic president is his inability to help his party build a strong, consistent message about what the Democrats believe in. Ronald Reagan was singularly effective at building the Republican party brand as small government/strong defense. It was such an effective packaging that Bill Clinton sought to borrow elements of it to repackage the Democrats as the party of “smart government.”
President Obama has been much less effective in helping cultivate a party brand by turning his legislative accomplishments into a digestable package. To the extent he was successful in his re-election efforts, he was able to reinforce the Clinton-era brand for the party as the party of “smart government.” He even seemed to be pinning back the Republicans in the wake of the government shutdown fight. That is until the Obamacare website fiasco created an opening for Republicans to paint the administration as incompetent.
The subsequent dip in the polls and the bad Senate map led the party to run en-masse away from the president and his record. In it stead, the party fielded or defended a set of candidates with muddled, inconsistent messages for voters. The strategy was to allow individual candidates to run as themselves rather than under their party brand. This approach might have won 20 years ago when parties weren’t “perfectly sorted” by ideology, but the impact of a candidate-centered approach is to further confuse your brand and make it more difficult for turnout operations to work because their party fervor isn’t backed by the candidate.
No matter how sophisticated the big-data infused micro-targeting techniques, party politics is still about motivating people. Even if you can get the “true believers” to knock on doors, they have to have something meaningful to say. More likely, bushels of dark money can be used to pay people to knock on doors. But what they say has to resonate. As Rasmus Klein Nielsen points out in Ground Wars, a useful book about the 2008 campaign, face-to-face communication has become increasingly prevalent in the microtargeting era. Increasingly, people are delivering political messages in elections. This corresponds with the growing body of political science literature that identifies this type of personal contact as most effective in political campaigns. Nielsen notes how much commitment is required of a get out the vote effort:
Contacting approximately 100 million people across the nation, as the numerous campaign assemblages that faced off at various levels during the 2008 elections did, takes about 33 million hours of work.
What gets 33 million hours of work done? Money? Absolutely. But the money doesn’t buy the commitment or the message. This mid-term election, when a Republican volunteer knocked on a door, they could deliver the 1-2 punch of their brand strength (small government, pro business) and the failure of the Democrats to live up to their brand (not-so-smart government). When a Democratic volunteer knocked on the door, they had nothing impactful they could say to their voters.
This isn’t because the Democrats don’t have a list of accomplishments. It’s because they still lack a language to articulate what they have accomplished. Politics are still at their base about ideas. Republicans have ideas about the role of government that are clearly understandable to the public. They skillfully downplayed the social conservative aspects of their party’s beliefs to capture middle-ground voters who are more concerned about job-growth. Democrats have ideas too. But President Obama’s skill as a public speaker hasn’t translated into a skill as a communicator. What has resulted is a party that provides tepid at best and non-existent at worst defense of an activist government. The era of candidate-centered politics is over. Democrats have little time to figure out who they are or they might be in the political wilderness for a generation.