11/09/2010 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nationalizing the Election in a Bad Year

One of the most dominant kinds of conventional wisdom among Democrats in a cycle which is moving against them is to not "nationalize the election". The thinking by the political consultants and high level staff people, which can seem very compelling when you are being battered by a rising tide, is that your best path is to run on local issues and/or to attack your opponent on whatever personal or political weaknesses they might possess. I understand the sentiment, and am very sympathetic to candidates who feel alone in a year when the narrative and frame is all running against you. I also fully recognize that a lot of the candidates such as Tom Perriello and Mary Jo Kilroy who courageously defended national Democratic issues and themes did not save themselves from getting swept away.

Having now lived through two massive meltdowns in national Democratic politics, 1994 and this stinker, I have become convinced that while it doesn't always make sense to push the national party brand in each individual district/state in this kind of year, that for the national Democratic party to not run a national campaign and make a full throated defense of the Democratic brand and accomplishments is a big mistake that only helps build the tide against us. I think this race-by-race, no national message strategy helps explain why 1994 and 2010 were such complete blowouts for us, whereas in the good years Democrats have had in the past couple of decades- which include 1990, 1992, 1996, 1998 as well as even the last two cycles before this one- our gains have been relatively modest compared to the butt-whipping we experienced in '94 and this time. Republicans and their conservative allies always defend their small government/low taxes/strong on national security/traditional values brand and accomplishments. Even when they are critical of their party, their criticism always revolves around stuff like "we drifted from our small government roots"- in fact, they reinforce their brand even while creating some distance from an unpopular national party.

Let's look at the campaign the national Republican party and their outside group allies put together this cycle to create this national frame that drove Democrats down:

  • They put big money from corporate allies into the Tea Party movement attacking big government and deficits
  • They did several hundred million dollars worth of TV, radio, and newspaper ads against the biggest Democratic issue initiatives (the stimulus bill, climate change, health care, and financial reform)
  • They worked in tandem with their in-house Republican cable channel, Fox News, and with conservative radio hosts to keep banging on their Obama's-socialist-agenda message, and to daily influence the traditional media's reporting of the narrative
  • Virtually all of their candidates, and the well coordinated outside groups funded with big business all echoed the same messages in their advertising and mail campaigns.

In response, because Democrats decided to avoid a national message or attempt at narrative, there was virtually nothing to explain what Democrats had done and what the values behind what they had done were. Polling showed voters thought of this as a do-nothing Congress in spite of passing the biggest jobs bill in history, a comprehensive health care bill with a lot of very popular provisions in it, a major new initiative to help millions of college students with their student loans, a bill to require regulation of tobacco for the first time, a bill to require equal pay for equal pay for equal work for women, major new initiatives to help veterans and small business, tax cuts for 95% of Americans and most businesses, and a bill to start regulating Wall St in several really significant ways. How is that possible? Because Democrats didn't want to take credit for what they did: it would "nationalize" the elections.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates were being brutalized over a health care bill with lots of popular things in it that no one was trying to defend (because it would nationalize the election), and over the stimulus bill that did actually do popular things like cut most people's taxes and create millions of new jobs (because -- say it with me, now -- it would nationalize the election). When ads were run on the bailout, there was no national push back to explain that the bailout was Bush's idea, or what Democrats had done to take on Wall St. And the deficit everyone was screaming about was mostly due to George W Bush, but no one wanted to say that because it would nationalize... well, you get the picture. With little offense or defense being played on national issues, what started out as a tough election became a bigger and bigger tide.

You know what the best evidence for my argument is? In the most competitive statewide races, Gov and Senate, where there was the most money and a lot of media attention, we held our own. But in the downballot races -- House races, state legislative, state constitutional offices- we got swamped by the national tide. Even in Senate races that had been thought to be more competitive early, places like MO and LA and NC, but where national Democrats had to pull out their money down the stretch, the national tide turned close to races into landslides. If trying to make each race local means not promoting or defending your national brand, the blowout becomes brutal.

Remember that list of good Democratic years I mentioned at the beginning of this piece? Think about it this way: in 6 of the 11 elections over the last 20 years, Democrats have done quite well, better than the Republicans in significant ways. Once was essentially a tie, 2000. Another two were pretty even, but the Republicans had a small edge. In the 3 of the 5 Presidential elections in that same time period, Democrats have won the Presidency by over 5 percentage points, with an electoral landslide each time. In the two years where the Republicans won the Presidency, one was 2000 where Gore won the popular vote but had Florida taken away from him, while the other was close enough that exit polls called it for Kerry, and it came down again to one close state. That's a pretty good electoral track record overall, and clearly shows that most of the time Democrats are very competitive with Republicans nationally.

But even in our best years, we have never had the utter blowouts the Republicans have enjoyed twice. Our best year for House pick-ups, 2006, came after Katrina, the worst years of the Iraq war, Terri Schiavo, and Bush's disastrous attempt to privatize Social Security- and we still got less than half the House pick-ups the Republicans did in their tidal wave this year. I am more and more convinced that it is because the Republicans never back down from their basic brand, they do still run a national election even in the bad years. Democrats really need to spend some serious time rethinking how they operate in the down cycles, and how they can promote and defend their brand every single election.

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