Written with Zach Friend for the Huffington Post. No ballots have been cast for November’s election, but apparently the outcome has already been decided: it isn’t whether Democrats will lose seats, it’s how badly they will be creamed. The talking heads have declared it so. But you know, political pundits and have a lot in common with stock analysts: they’re pretty good at explaining the future — right after it happens.
Electoral corrections happen. That’s a fact. And this midterm election will have a correction. But will November bring Democratic doomsday? That’s up to voters — and to Democratic candidates, who need to stop trying so hard not to lose that they forget how to win.
There is a roadmap to Democratic victory in November, and it’s simple: establish an emotional (and true) narrative, draw contrasts and let your field operations do their job.
Establish a Narrative
Republicans want to frame this election as about failed policies. It isn’t. But the moment Democrats start justifying — or worse, running from — their policies, that’s the moment they start losing, by leaving a void for the Republican narrative to fill.
It does not matter that the GOP’s narrative is false. What matters is that it carries an emotional punch.
For example: Have you ever heard a Republican refer to Democratic economic policies without using the phrase “job-killing”? Can you think of the Democratic counterpart of that phrase?
Neither can we.
We’re not saying Democrats should come up with something equally dishonest. We don’t need to. Democrats, now and in the past, have a far better record on job creation, and on the economy generally. (Go back and check the record: jobs, GDP growth, debt reduction, all better under Democrats, going back as far as these things have been measured. Do most people know that? Why not, do you suppose?)
No, we can and should come up with our own emotionally powerful but true narrative – and push it boldly.
Recently, President Obama has gained some traction by calling out the GOP for “holding middle class tax cuts hostage” to tax cuts for the rich. This phrase works. Why? Not because it is rationally persuasive (though it is), but because of the emotionally vivid image of being held hostage. That image captures the feeling of the situation — and feelings are what motivate people, not facts and logic.
Starting around the New Year, the DNC started distributing a graph showing the V-shaped curve of job loss vs. job rescue under Bush and Obama, respectively. We’ve heard it called the “bikini graph”, since it’s shaped like a pair of bikini bottoms (or it was, before the recent eight months of job growth extended the right hand side of the V up past the waist band). Now “bikini graph” — there’s an image that sticks in your head.
But many Democrats seem to be uncomfortable with this level of simple, direct emotion. It’s like somewhere along the line we went from the party of shoot-from-the-hip working people to the party of repressed eggheads who’ve lost touch with their lower chakras.
The bikini graph makes a stark, visual contrast between the policies of the two parties. That’s important, because an election is a choice. People need to see the choice, and — say it together — feel it.
Let Your Field Ops Do The Walking
Now here’s where we get to the nuts and bolts. The pundits, as so often happens, are misreading the polls (think back to their record in 2008). Furthermore, and probably because most of them have never actually worked on a political campaign (or at least a winning one), they’re ignoring the power of field operations.* In a recent Politico/George Washington University poll Democrats and Republicans were tied nationally – while in the Midwest and Northeast, home to a number of tight races, Democrats hold a five-point advantage. According to Pollster.com, since the 2008 Election more voters have left the Republican Party than have left the Democratic Party.
We’re not blind to the fact that there is an enthusiasm gap between the two parties. But it doesn’t mean that losing big is the necessary result. Especially given the tightening of state-by-state polling, a lot will hinge on field operations.
Good field ops can make up 3-5 points on Election Day. Organizing for America, the offshoot of Obama for America, has, rightly, been concentrating on voter registration efforts, field training and fundraising in most battleground areas. It’s up to Dems to turn out their voters, using their superior field operation and voter registration edge.
It’s way too early to wave the white flag (actually, it’s always too early for that). If you want to reach voters, give them a reason to care — a good narrative. If you want them to understand what’s at stake, draw contrasts. And if you want them to show up, get your people out in the field. To have a better November, maybe we simply need to pay a little less attention to pundits and a little more attention to what we know in our guts is right — and what we know works.
*Michael Dukakis predicted the critical importance of field organizing in 2007, and we remember TV pundits gently mocking him, because, you know, Dukakis wasn’t cool. But he was exactly right.