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Good Democratic Campaign Tactics: Bush And Gas Prices

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Rather than taking potshots at all and sundry this week, for a change I'd like to spotlight some positive ideas from the Democratic campaign trail. Two encouraging developments deserve both applause and emulation by other Democrats running for office.

The first is a local television ad for the California governor's race, and the second is a campaign tactic ("stunt" would be more accurate) from Democratic House contenders in North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio.

In California, the "Gropenator" is up for re-election. Democrat Phil Angelides is taking on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the polls have been swinging back and forth. The latest one from Rasmussen shows Arnie up 47-41, but a poll taken a few weeks earlier had Angelides up by 2 points. Part of this is due to the ad blitz Schwarzenegger has been airing ever since the primary (he had no real primary challenger, so he was able to save his money for general election campaign ads).

But now the California Democratic Party has struck back. They recently started airing an ad in heavy rotation that is blunt, to the point, and memorable.

[Click here to see the ad, then click on "You: The Bush-Arnold Connection"]

The ad opens with text which reads: "Bush and Schwarzenegger, Ohio 2004," then shows a video of the two onstage together, with Arnie yelling to a Bush '04 campaign rally: "Let's go out and re-elect President George W. Bush!" The rest of the ad alternates Arnie bellowing "George W. Bush!" over and over, with voice-over and text of the following messages between each repetition:

"130,000 American troops remain in Iraq under George W. Bush."

"Gasoline prices were up 135% under George W. Bush."

"Our national debt is up three trillion dollars under George W. Bush."

It closes with: "Arnold Schwarzenegger's for George W. Bush. Is he for YOU?"

Just in case you didn't get the point, every time Arnie's face is on the screen, in the lower corner is a blue logo: "Arnold For Bush."

Now, you can argue that this is a sledgehammer and that it's too overdone to be effective, but I would disagree. Sure, it's simplistic. Sure, it's corny. Sure, it's repetitive and annoying. Sure, it's obvious. That's what makes it a good campaign ad. People will remember it.

Schwarzenegger, after all, went to the most important electoral state (Ohio) very late in the 2004 campaign -- and drew an enormous crowd campaigning for Bush. It's impossible to guess what would have happened in Ohio if Arnold hadn't made the trip, but it is definitely a valid issue to bring up during his own campaign. Arnold, it should be noted, doesn't exactly brag about being Republican. He hopes voters will overlook that minor fact in this extremely blue state. Reminding everyone he supported Bush is a good way to get through to voters that normally don't pay much attention to politics.

The second bit of good news is a tactic dreamed up by Larry Kissell, a Democratic House candidate taking on Republican Robin Hayes in North Carolina. He's running a longshot campaign, but his stunt is a beauty. At the beginning of August, he campaigned at a gas station that he paid to sell gas for $1.22 a gallon -- the price of gas when his opponent took office. His campaign made up the difference in price to the station, and over 500 voters filled up. Comments from customers, according to a report in the Charlotte Observer included: "It's the best thing since peanut butter," and (from a Republican, no less): "That's the way to campaign."

Democratic House candidate Mike Weaver has held a similar event in Kentucky. So has John Cranley, running for the House in Ohio. A trio of Democratic hopefuls in Arizona weren't as bold (no cheap gas provided), but they did hold a campaign event in front of a gas station. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a memo urging other candidates to do the same:

"Demonstrate your dedication to fighting for middleclass families by clearly explaining how you will work to keep down the price of gas if elected to Congress. Hold an event at a gas station or other logical location where you call for a real commitment to bringing down gas prices and pledge that, as a member of Congress, you will fight for families in your district, not the oil and gas executives for which this Republican Congress has fought so hard."

This is a brilliant tactic which should be repeated immediately nationwide. The upcoming Labor Day weekend would be the perfect time to stage these events. Not everybody pays attention to politics, but almost everybody buys gas. And nobody's happy with the current price.

There are only three possible downsides to this stunt. The first is being accused of buying votes, but legally that's not going to go anywhere, as it's not technically any sort of quid-pro-quo for anyone's vote. Republican voters are free to fill up at the cheap price, too. The second possible problem is that Republicans running against sitting Democrats could actually pick up the tactic, but it's a much harder case to make against Democrats, since Republicans control both houses of Congress. The third problem is a long-term one, the fact that there really is no "magic bullet" to make prices come down at the pump, so voters might be disappointed if Congress goes Democratic and gas prices stay high.

Democrats could live with that problem, though, since they would be much more likely to pass legislation to attack the long-term problem: higher fuel economy (CAFE) standards for cars, and muscular development of alternative energy sources. If voters see Democrats moving forward towards freeing America from foreign oil, they'll be less upset that they can't get gas for a buck a gallon anymore.

So Democratic candidates should take note of both of these campaign tactics. Link sitting congressional Republicans to Bush every chance you get. A good rule of thumb: never say your opponent's name in a sentence without also mentioning Bush's failures. And hold cheap gas frenzies at your local gas station -- it's a stone cold guarantee of good (and free) local media coverage.

Both of these are encouraging signs that Democrats are rediscovering how to run a good campaign. It's true that two vertebrae do not a backbone make; but it is indeed a step in the right direction.

[If you like these ideas, let them know it. Send them a link to this article:]

Chairman Howard Dean (Democratic National Committee)

Representative Rahm Emanuel (Chairman of the House's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee)

Senator Charles Schumer (Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee)

[Note: I'll be on vacation next week, so my column will appear on Thursday rather than the usual Wednesday.]