...and that's a good thing.
2010 was a bad year for Team Blue – Republicans were in full bay over the Affordable Care Act, and Democratic voters were disillusioned with their elected leaders and not enthusiastic about voting. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was widely seen as an extremely vulnerable target – the economy was doing poorly, and the incumbent was not widely liked, very exposed due to his authority position, and from a swing state known to have some rabid conservatives and a tendency toward some rather erratic political behavior. Yet, on election night 2010, the Nevada Senate race was called for the incumbent less than an hour after the polls closed, and Senator Reid won re-election by a solid five-point margin after seemingly being behind in the polls for weeks.
Reid won because he followed a shrewd strategy that, while perhaps a little cynical for the idealists, works. It’s what we’ve watched Team Obama do essentially from “go” with this election, and it’s working again. Locals here in Nevada sometimes call this “the United States of Nevada” (because of a tendency toward bucking the law of the land, et cetera), but I think Nevada is a good microcosm of the USA in this case – broad swaths of very conservative, thinly populated rural areas, swingy suburban districts, and deep blue polka dots. The President’s campaign is wise to follow a similar strategy to that which led to Senator Reid’s win. It breaks down pretty simply:
1. Pick the weakest opponent you can.
2. Define your opponent before s/he can even get started, stay on message, and hammer the opponent relentlessly.
3. Have a solid campaign finance operation/war chest.
4. Have an exceptional ground game.
1. In the 2010 Nevada Senate race, Harry Reid got up on the air early and stayed there – first using the “chickens for checkups” fiasco to ridicule his likely strongest opponent, who was Sue Lowden, a state Republican Party leader. She suggested people use barter to pay for healthcare, like people did back in the old days trading a chicken for a doctor’s visit. Reid beat Lowden up and down the state with this ridiculous concept, weakening her for the Republican primary and permitting tea party darling (and utter whacko Palinite) Sharron Angle to surge to a win for the Republican nomination.
Obama’s campaign meddled in the Republican primary similarly, and so did many other Democrats (remember Kos’s “Operation Hilarity”?) – though the end result wasn’t a Santorum nomination, the longer Romney went without nailing down the nomination, the weaker he looked. What’s more, a long Republican primary highlighted divisions in the Republican voting populace, and also brought out the craziest of the crazy, embarrassing the party at a national level just when they needed to market themselves as reasonable. Though the Obama campaign didn’t end up able to select the weakest possible opponent, the strategy did yield division of the opposing party and a weakened standard-bearer in Romney.
2. This is the stage which has just recently begun: define your opponent before s/he can even get started. Romney isn’t even formally nominated yet, and hasn’t even really fully gained his footing from the Republican primaries, especially in light of the Paulite rebellion going on at the state levels (something which will manifest in full at convention time). Yet, the Obama campaign is already nailing Romney to the wall six ways from Sunday. Romney is basically running on two parts of his record to qualify him to lead the nation: his stint as the governor of Massachusetts, and his experience running Bain Capital. The President’s campaign knows Romney’s folks don’t want to talk about his time as Massachusetts governor because that leads to discussion of Romneycare, and they enjoyed the benefit of Romney’s stumble and faceplant after the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act. This leaves Romney’s one option - to pivot to his business experience. The Obama campaign was ready and tripped Romney mid-pivot. In the process of the Romney campaign’s flailing before national doubt and ridicule, the President’s campaign has effectively charged up his base, frustrated and depressed the GOP base, and inserted doubt into the swing voter’s mind about Romney. If the GOP candidate can’t run on governing Massachusetts, and can’t run on his Bain record, and in fact is running FROM both of those parts of his record…what’s left?
3. The Obama Campaign does not have trouble raising money. Granted, they are being outraised because of the superPAC race – but they’re not hurting for cash, and they’re spending wisely. They’re running a parallel campaign: a media campaign for the entire nation, and a nitty gritty campaign in the swing states that matter. The early results look promising: polls still look decent to good for the President in nearly all of the states he needs to carry again to win the electoral college.
4. The Obama For America organization and the volunteer get-out-the-vote organization maintained by the President’s campaign are nothing short of exceptional. Democrats have rarely had such an effective GOTV operation, and it is intact from 2008. My understanding is that that superb operation is responsible for unexpected blue states like Indiana, and when polls look iffy in a place, I’m hopeful that intense and effective ground game will again help keep many 2008 wins blue.
I know some people are worried that the president’s campaign is going full-bore too early, and will run out of ammunition too soon, but frankly, I think we’ve seen that an off-kilter, unwieldy Romney campaign continues to gift the Obama campaign with poor optics and gaffes galore. There’s This is what comes of a candidate who believes he is so entitled to the office, and is so insularly righteous in his belief that he and his history are fabulous that he is stuck in reactive mode before attacks he and his campaign never imagined could happen. The Obama campaign is working a time honored strategy with campaigns – get on the board first, and stay there. It’s something more Democrats could stand to do when campaigning, and something I wish LGBT campaigns would learn when fighting the haters. Start the game, set the narrative, and yank the rug out from under the other side before they know where the floor is. More often than not, campaigns that do this create the environment that leads to a win. Hats off to the Obama campaign for a masterful start.