The defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley in the bluest of blue states, Massachusetts, for liberal icon Ted Kennedy’s own seat offers lessons as urgent as they are vital to incumbents headed in to elections on both sides of the Atlantic in the months to come.
Momentum trumps organisation
In the final weekend before polling, the Democrats mounted a truly awe-inspiring field operation. Organised by the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaigns Committee, and the White House political arm – Organizing for America – Democrat volunteers were mobilized from across the nation to make over one million phone calls to likely democratic voters and put 7,000 volunteers onto the streets of Boston and Cambridge to turn out the vote. By contrast, Republican Scott Brown’s campaign – though fueled by conservative movement, money, and enthusiasm – was woefully lacking in numbers of both phone bankers and canvassers. In the Saturday and Sunday before polling day, Brown’s campaign made 125,000 calls and had only 150 canvassers on the streets. Indeed the campaign felt its insufficiency so great that the campaign took the unusual step of hiring a further 100 canvassers on a pay-by-hour basis.
This overwhelming field advantage coupled with Election Day projections of high turnout gave Democratic strategists some reason to hope that Coakley could reverse the likely course of the race and edge out a win. However, as both seasoned field organizers and Ivy League academics concur, field organizing can only ever be worth a few points at best – 2.5 to 4 per cent is what Yale University’s ‘Centre for Get Out the Vote’ studies cites as both a reasonable yet impressive field effect on final turnout.
Brown’s campaign, buoyed by a natural candidate of good looks, easy charm and blue collar appeal generated such a sense of Republican base enthusiasm, swing voter interest, and media enchantment that he was able to ride an anti-incumbent wave that swept hard-fought democratic field efforts aside. The Brown campaign understood the role the campaign had to play in creating momentum, and in contrast to Coakley’s 19 campaign events after the primary through the Sunday before polling day, Brown mounted 66 events to fuel the enthusiasm of their supporters.
The candidate is the centre of gravity
No force in a campaign can change as many voters’ minds as swiftly and as meaningfully as that of a candidate. For good, candidates have it within their capacity to inspire remarkable loyalty and incredible efforts in both staff and volunteers whilst connecting with voters by direct means like communications and branding as well as indirectly through an almost visceral level with voters as individuals. Scott Brown’s pickup truck tour of Massachusetts’ Main Streets was a perfect coming-together of both message brand and candidate personality.
At a purely professional level, both Brown and his campaign staff (many of whom had worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign) deserve credit for such a well-executed blending of man, message, and medium. For ill, few things demonstrate the singular capability of a candidate to throw a safe seat away than the campaign of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. Through a combination of personal laziness (when asked at the weekend why she was not campaigning harder, she replied, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”) and horrendous on-record gaffes (notably accusing Boston Red Sox baseball great Curt Schilling of being a New York Yankee), Coakley contrived to become the first Democrat in nearly three decades to lose a Massachusetts senate race.
Known in the political trade as unforced errors, Coakley offered so many soundbite gems for Republican attack dogs and journalists that a running joke amongst party insiders was that she must be a double agent. In sum, Coakely’s distaste for campaigning and lack of personal discipline combined to seal her fate, proving the old political adage that “the better political athlete almost always wins” true once again.
Change beats experience
The Labour party in 1945 proved that change beats experience by ousting Churchill. Obama did the same in 2008 by beating both McCain and Clinton. As detailed in Stanley Greenberg’s brilliant Dispatches from the War Room, realising the power of a change over experience message, Tony Blair ran the 2005 re-election campaign on an audacious change message of ‘Britain Forward, Not Back’.
This political truth speaks to voters’ instinctive wariness of politicians and their desire particularly at times of economic hardship for new faces on the political scene. In the US, this has been demonstrated just one year in to the Obama presidency. One can only speculate as to how much greater this force will be in Britain at the next general election given the backdrop of both the recession and the parliamentary expenses scandal. It is for this reason that the best political strategists, from David Cameron’s Steve Hilton to Labour’s Peter Mandelson, believe it is vital to win the fight for the change mantle.
Coakley’s campaign dwelt too deeply for too long on her experience and record as State Attorney General and long-serving Massachusetts public servant – a familiar and seductive message for politicians only too keen to talk about themselves and offer up laundry lists of facts and figures as proof of past achievements. Scott Brown’s campaign, in contrast, was relentlessly focused on the importance of change and his stump speech was less about himself and more about voters, illustrating once again that politicians are more successful when they make elections not about themselves, but about the voters.
There are no safe seats anymore
As Republican, Democrat, and British strategists of all hues consider the lessons of a Democratic defeat in Massachusetts, they should not only consider what Brown’s campaign got right, and what Coakley’s campaign got wrong, but the underlying mood and message voters are sending to politicians of all hues. An anti-incumbency wave is building, and campaigns must raise their game to survive it by understanding that there are no safe seats anymore.
Candidates must thread the needle between being genuine to voters and not offering up unforced errors for their opponents. Campaigns must build strong organisations while understanding the limits of their nightly voter contact numbers and consequently building buzz and momentum as well. Lastly, campaigns must offer a change message and eschew the temptation to run too hard on experience. Voters understand that elections are about the future, not the past, and they want campaigns to focus on their kitchen table needs not on the candidates vanity.
The electoral winners of 2010 will be those candidates who use personal narrative to reflect voters’ own concerns and aspirations and build campaign machines that deliver momentum, organisation, and the promise of change.
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