Monday, October 17, 2005

Pessimism vs. Realism

In the discussion on Anatomy of a Smear, BOP Reader Mike commented that my gloom-and-doom predictions that Virginia Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine may have lost the election last week are too pessimistic.

I decided to reply to Mike in a new post, because he brings up an important point:

Can Democrats ever be too pessimistic?

My answer is a resounding No.

Democrats were a ruling party for a long, long time--yes, even here in Virginia, if you dig back far enough in history. (The statistic tossed around on the campaign I worked in '03 was that Democrats hadn't picked up new seats in the Virginia House of Delegates for 25 years.) Democrats were even the dominant party in Texas state politics. I know, it is hard to fathom today. When you are on top for long enough, you tend to get fat and lazy. You lose your competitive edge, and you forget how to fight. The Democratic party still runs by and large like it is "entitled" to win, like it can sit back and wait for the votes and dollars to roll in. This strategy clearly isn't working.

When I am involved with an election campaign, it is my job to expect the worst, and prepare to win anyway. In fact, anticipating just how many things can go wrong is a big part of my job. I'll take an easy win, but I'll never expect one or bank on one. And, as far as I'm concerned, the polls may close at 7pm but the election isn't over (and my job isn't over) until an authentic tally of the votes has been performed and the election results are certified. So, when I take seriously the threat posed last week not just by the vicious distatesfulness of Kilgore's attack ads, but by the Kaine campaign's pitiful response, it isn't out of melodrama. It is out of a desire to win, and an awareness of what it takes to win. (I'm not trying to say "I'm right because I'm an expert." I'm saying that I blog as an "outsider," but I'd be giving the same advice to any campaign I was on.)

In the past week, Kaine's response to the smear has been EXACTLY the same as Dukakis's. Dukakis had a 17 point lead and wound up losing with this strategy (softball, stall, be nice, explain). Democrats seem to expect that Kaine can use the Dukakis Method, coming from a statistical dead heat (i.e., a 17 point *disadvantage* compared to Dukakis), but arrive at a winning result. That makes no sense to me.

In fact, that makes me pretty damn angry (at the Democrats, not at Mike). In election after election, at the state and national level, we see Democrats run elections the same way they lost them last time...and then act suprised when they lose them again and again and again. Case in point: Bob Schrum holds a world record as a campaign manager for losing presidential elections for Democrats. Off the top of my head, I think he has lost *7*. What on earth was John Kerry thinking when he hired Schrum? We are seeing the same passionate, committed denial of the laws of cause and effect within Virginia Democratic circles right now.

I mean, seriously: if your doctor said to you, "we want to use this medical technique on you. All the other patients we've ever tried it on in the same circumstances in the same way have died. But this time we're sure it will all be fine." Would you go for it? Then why do the Democrats?

In addition, we have the Nader factor to deal with--i.e., Russ Potts (who is a life-long Republican, also running for Virginia governor as an Independent). I am amazed at how naive most voters are about both how partisan politics work, and the stakes involved in the balance of power (e.g., vetoes/veto-blocking, committee assignments, etc.). I am worried that voters who are put off by this latest tiff between Kilgore and Kaine may vote for Potts. Without access to quality polling data, I don't know how to guage which camp will bleed more votes to Potts. I am certainly interested in the objective guesses of other Virginia political observers.

Virginia's gubernatorial looks an awful lot like the 2004 Presidential election. We have party-line voters, and a contested margin of swing voters (which we can't accurately identify on the Democratic side because of the state of the Democratic Party's voter list--in Virginia voter's don't register to vote by party), plus we have Anybody-But-Kilgore Voters, who are likely to find Potts (as a traditional Republican) more attractive than Kaine; and Anybody-But-Kaine Voters who are likely to vote for Potts over Kilgore, especially since Potts' position on a number of social issues is more liberal than Kaine's are. For example, Potts has a clear, solid position in favor of reproductive rights, while Kaine is doing the CathlicWaffle(TM) on abortion the same way he is on the Death Penalty--I'm worried about how many women will vote for Potts over Kaine as a result.

Don't get me wrong. Potts can't win this election, but he can hurt either of the other candidates enough to swing this election.

Virginians also overwhelmingly support the death penality. Kilgore is doing a masterful job of defining the public discourse and luring Kaine into a sand trap with these ads. The last thing Kaine needs to do is alienate shaky voters by talking about the death penalty. Instead, the first thing he says in his response ad last week is "I oppose the death penalty." In Virginia, he may as well have stood up and said "I support Osama Bin Laden." In Canadian terms, last week Kaine scored on his own net.

There is an unspoken understanding that good little Democrats should hold hands and sing Kumbaya and never challenge or question our candidates during elections (or outside elections for that matter) in quest of the all-holy buzz. I do understand this: a big part of what I do for campaigns is generate propaganda, frankly. But there still has to be substance to hold up the fantasies. And buzz counts for nothing when you're counting the votes. (You may recall that the buzz for Kerry was pretty impressive this time last year, too.)

If Virginia Democrats want Kaine to win, thinking happy thoughts isn't going to do the trick. I'd be far happier to see people contact the Kaine campaign and say, "Pull up your socks, dammit. We need you to be the next Governor and we can't afford to have you tank your own election." (I am hoping that Mark Warner and a number of other big Democrats are doing just that.)

Let me be very clear, that I support Tim Kaine, and he is the only choice in this election. I don't want Kaine to lose, I want him to win--and that's why it makes me angry to watch such amatuer, losing moves come out of his campaign.

Kaine can still turn this around, but his time is dwindling fast. He has to stop letting Kilgore define the debate, dump the CatholicWaffle act, get away from the topic of capital punishment, and come out swinging at issues where Kaine is strong and Kilgore is weak. Campaigns aren't rocket science: I think you'll agree that all of these tactics are self-evident. But Kaine doesn't show signs of employing any of them.

If Kaine doesn't turn the campaign around fast, we all lose. It is that simple.

I don't feel my pessimism is exaggerated. I'd say it is just on the mark, and in general, Democrats would benefit from more pessimism, not less.