Monday, October 23, 2006

A Better Democratic Campaign Strategy

The release of a new television advertisement by the Republican National Committee highlights the Republican Party’s choice to campaign for the mid-term elections next month in the same manner that they campaigned for elections in 2002 and 2004: scare voters into voting for Republicans. This strategy is perhaps best represented by the ad Republicans ran in the last weeks of the 2004 campaign, a chilling image of a circling page of wolves and a scary voice-over warning about weak-on-defense Democrats. Pundits generally agree that, although the ad was cynical, it was very effective. This tactic worked because voters have traditionally seen Republicans as being stronger on national security issues, and terrorism continues to be a central concern for Americans. It may not work this time, however, because despite the Bush administration’s continued attempt to conflate the two issues, voters have begun to differentiate between the war in Iraq – which a majority of Americans now believe to be a mess – and terrorism, and voters seem to be more worried about the mess in Iraq than Osama bin Laden. Democrats have been content to sit back and allow the Republicans to lose the 2006 election in the face of their incompetent handing of Iraq and a plethora of domestic scandals. They should be doing more. Polling indicates that the Republicans are increasingly likely to lose control of the House of Representatives and may even lose control of the Senate. However, most analysts agree that the only thing giving Republicans a glimmer of hope is the Democrats’ failure to offer a coherent alternative to the Republican platform (tough on security and low taxes). What, even generally, would Democrats do if they controlled one or both houses of Congress? The vast majority of voters don’t know, because Democrats are not saying, at least with any sort of clarity or consistency. Tony Blair once observed, quite accurately, that if you want to motivate voters, you should talk about two things: their hopes and fears. Republicans have cornered the “fear” side of the market. But they have left the “hope” message wide open. The Democratic Party should spend the next two weeks advertising a message of hope. They could even fudge a bit on the specifics of their policy proposals, especially since they probably couldn’t agree on such specifics anyway. But a positive message – something along the lines of a smarter foreign policy and help for middle class families - would contrast very favorably to the scary Republican advertisements and their gloomy warning that Democrats want to “cut and run” in Iraq and to raise taxes. A hopeful message, properly advertised, could well turn the current Democratic advantage into a rout.

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