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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lux: Dem Messaging Should Now ‘Go Big and Aspirational’

The following, by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of “The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be,” is cross-posted from HuffPo:
I really enjoyed the last two weeks of party conventioneering, and not just because I’m a political junkie. I mostly enjoyed them because I am a Democrat, and I thought we thoroughly won the convention wars. Christie was too much of a blowhard, Ryan got caught in too many lies, Romney was too robotic, and Clint was too distracting for the Republican message to sink in. Democrats had better speakers, a more credible message, and I think we won the values debate.
However, I think we also missed an opportunity to widen the gap and seal the deal, and I think this race will be close as nails right down to the end as a result. When the economy is as tough as this one is, the anti-incumbent party always has an edge, and when you add in a big money gap, it worsens the odds even more. I still believe in the end we will win this thing due to a better message and a great field operation, but it is going to be tough as nails all the way.
The opportunity we missed was to give voters a better education and more context on why the economy went bad and has stayed as bad as it is, and to lay out a big ideas plan for how to fix things for the long haul. We did a great job on many things- reminding voters that the Republicans got us into this mess in the first place, framing the values debate as lifting everyone up vs. you are all on your own, making great arguments as why our policies are so much better than theirs (and why theirs are terrible), and telling the story of President Obama’s character. But without more context of how things got messed up and why they have been slow to come back, the question in many voters’ minds is still there: yeah, things were bad when Obama got here but why are they still so bad? What Democrats should have done is to go beyond blaming the Republicans for the great recession, and tell the story of the villain behind it all, the Wall Street guys (including, yes, Bain Capital) who manipulated markets, got us all into trouble, and then blocked bigger reforms. Elizabeth Warren in her remarkable speech did a great job of beginning to tell that story, but one speech wasn’t enough.
With that context told, Obama could have gone on with greater credibility to then lay out some substance, Clinton-style, on how we were going to build an economy for the long term based on the middle class instead of wealthy special interests. He had pieces of a plan, some good nuggets, in his speech, but it didn’t feel like a deep, comprehensive plan that would bring the middle class out of its misery.
But no use crying over spilt milk. The Obama team made a different decision than I would have, and who knows, they may be right- a lot of what they did in that convention clearly worked. The question moving forward is what to do now.

There were a couple of interesting alternatives presented over the last few days. One is to go more toward deficit cutting message, the other is to go in a more populist direction. The former comes from Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, both of whom I know a little bit from past campaigns. Pat worked for McGovern and then Jimmy Carter, and was the mastermind behind the message strategy that doomed Carter to defeat in 1980. Since then worked for a series of losing Presidential candidates, and was the guy behind New Coke. Doug has at least had a little more success, working for Clinton in ’96 and for Michael Bloomberg, but his big advice to Clinton in 1995 was dead wrong: cave to Gingrich in the budget showdown. When Clinton did the right thing and told Gingrich no, the President went from being 10 points behind Bob Dole to ten points ahead, and never looked back.
In the Caddell/Schoen memo, they talk about what trouble the President is in, siting for example that he is behind in states like Missouri (which the campaign is not targeting and no one who is actually looking seriously at the race has ever thought the President would win). Caddell and Schoen have written a column that says Obama just needs to be a lot more like Paul Ryan and talk a lot about deficits, and everything will turn out okay. Given that Ryan’s budget when described to people is incredibly unpopular, and that whenever people think about deficits it helps Republicans, that advice is about as dumb as, well, New Coke and Carter’s Malaise speech.
The other alternative makes a lot more sense to me: go more populist. Both Stan Greenberg and James Carville, and Lake Research Partners, have come out with memos in recent days talking about what messages are working in their research, and the research is clear about what works and what doesn’t. The Lake memo describes 4 different message frames that clearly move voters the President’s way on economic issues. All four talk populist language about the President’s priorities and the Romney plan, and are well worth reading for those of you Democratic campaigners wanting to win this year. Meanwhile, the Greenberg/Carville memo describes 6 things they hoped the Obama team should try to get done at the convention: (1) go big and aspirational, (2) make clear that Obama will tax the rich and Romney will cut their taxes, (3) define Romney as the representative of the power and money that is killing the middle class, (4) embrace and sell Obamacare, (5) speak for the vulnerable, and (6) remind the country of the Republicans’ social agenda. Clearly the convention worked to do some of these things, and I give them an A on accomplishing points 2, 4, 5, and 6.
Where the convention fell short was on going big and aspirational, and on defining Romney as the representative of the power and money that is killing the middle class. They didn’t go big and aspirational enough in my view. And they didn’t give the context they needed to give, they didn’t tell the story about how wealthy and powerful special interests on Wall Street and elsewhere have wrecked this economy and are not letting it heal. They didn’t talk nearly enough about the big money that is corrupting our politics and hurting the economy. There is still time to do those things in the fall campaign through speeches, ads, and the debates, and I hope they do.
I do feel so much better about the Obama message than I did in the 2010 cycle and the first half of 2011. They have gotten a lot more populist, a lot more focused on lifting up and fighting for the middle class. I think in some areas, they are still pulling their punches though, and I hope that changes as the campaign goes forward. Everything I read in polling reports, everything I see in focus groups and dial tests is that if they did, they might be able to stretch out the exceedingly narrow lead they are working with to a more solid 4 point win on election day.
I think it is going to be extraordinarily challenging to overcome the combination of the economy and the huge doses of special interest money being spent against us. In the end, I think we are doing enough things right to win this race. It will be a dramatic finish, though, and probably a very late on election night before we know for sure.

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