Tag Archives: political messaging

Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

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The limits of messaging

Just finished listening to a Reporter’s Roundtable on VPR*, with three of the better reporters around — VTDigger’s Anne Galloway, VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, and the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck– examining the entrails of last week’s primary election and the prospects for November. 

*Audio not yet available online, but it should appear here later today. 

Thin gruel, to be sure; the key races are essentially over, with the possible exception of Phil Scott vs. Dean Corren for Lieutenant Governor. But when the race for a mainly ceremonial position is your biggest source of intrigue, well, that tells you all you need to know. 

There was a lot of dancing around the fact that November is in the bag for the Democrats, with the noble exception of Galloway coming right out and saying that Governor Shumlin was going to win. The dancing is understandable, considering that (1) journalists want to appear objective, and (2) as political journalists, they’ve gotta cover this puppy for two more months, and what fun is it when there’s no intrigue? 

Much of the dancing centered on the idea that good “messaging” could carry a Republican candidate into a competitive position. The Dems aren’t invulnerable, the reasoning goes, it’s just that neither Scott Milne nor Dan Feliciano seems capable of delivering a solid, appealing message. 

That’s true, insofar as it goes. But there are three much more powerful factors operating against the Republicans: most voters pay little or no attention to messaging, the electorate is solidly center-left, and today’s Republican Party has little to offer on the key issues in Vermont. 

First, reporters and insiders overestimate the impact of tactics and strategy and messaging. The vast majority of voters have their minds made up before the campaigning starts. The only thing that could change their minds is some sort of shocking revelation or catastrophic event. Some voters do actually watch debates and bring an open mind to campaign coverage, but they only matter when an election is otherwise close. 

Second, it’s obvious from the results of the last decade or so that most voters prefer Democrats. The Legislature has been solidly Democratic for years. Among statewide Republicans, only Jim Douglas and Phil Scott have been able to buck the trend. Both have done so because of their unique personal appeal and by projecting an image of moderation and willingness to compromise. 

And third, Shumlin and the Dems are potentially vulnerable on issues like health care reform, the Department of Children and Families, the economy, taxation (especially school taxes), and the environment (Lake Champlain, the natural gas pipeline). 

On all those issues, the most appealing solutions involve more government, not less. Shumlin is more vulnerable to his left than to his right. 

In spite of Vermont Health Connect’s troubles, health care reform remains popular. Republicans have no answer aside from letting the market do its magic. Fixing DCF would require more resources, or at the very least more effective management. Have the Republicans given anyone reason to believe they care more than the Dems about poor people? Hell, no. Do the Republicans have a track record of good management? Only in the minds of Jim Douglas and Tom Pelham. 

Would the Republicans be better stewards of the environment than Dems? Ha ha. Can they plausibly portray themselves as defenders of public education, which remains extremely popular in Vermont? No; their only solutions are competition and union-busting. Can they convince voters that they’d preserve local control? Not if you could saw money by centralizing. 

On the economy, the Republicans have little to offer aside from the tired, discredited supply-side nonsense. Which took another bullet yesterday with the news (from the Federal Reserve Bank) that our post-Great Recession “recovery” has benefited the wealthy while middle- and working-class wealth has actually declined. One-percenters and corporations have a larger share of our wealth than ever, and all the Republicans can offer is policies that will further enrich the rich. 

And as for taxation, Vermonters may be dissatisfied with rising school taxes and worried about the cost of single-payer health care, but they also favor a robust government that can tackle problems effectively. Most voters don’t want a mindless “cut, cut, cut” approach, and that’s the standard Republican line. 

Here’s what a Republican would have to do, to be competitive on a statewide level: Bring an established reputation for effective governance, or at least an open-minded attitude toward the notion that government can actually solve problems. Express skepticism about political dogma, especially the cherished beliefs of the right. And do that without, somehow, losing too much support among the Republican base. And, finally, regain the support of the business community, which has largely abandoned the VTGOP in favor of a cooperative relationship with the Democrats. 

Now. If a Republican can identify and execute a strategy that accomplishes those things, s/he can win. Otherwise, no amount of good messaging will carry the day. It’s not impossible; there’s at least one potential Republican candidate who could manage it. But he ain’t running this year.