(Glen Bolger is proud to have served has Bob McDonnell’s pollster for both his Attorney General’s race and his Gubernatorial race. Here are some observations about the campaign.)
Democrat claims that Bob McDonnell’s victory in Virginia is just a Republican electorate reasserting itself and has nothing to do with Barack Obama are simply trying to put lipstick on a pig.
Saying Virginia is a Republican state is like saying the Washington Redskins are a well-run organization. It was once true, but not any more. Democrats control a majority of congressional seats, state Senate seats, both U.S. Senate seats, and had won the previous two Governor’s races. Others say Virginia is a purple state, but Obama won it by seven points. Given the recent Democrat string of victories, the only thing purple about Virginia lately is the discolored bruises Republicans have from their beatings from the electorate.
I’ve been asked if Bob’s strong showing in the polls leading into his overwhelming Election Day victory is because of Bob McDonnell’s issue-based campaign, the vacuous and negative campaign of Creigh Deeds, or voter reaction to Barack Obama’s expansion of government. The answer is yes – it is all three.
The McDonnell strategy team, led by campaign manager Phil Cox, and complemented by chairman Ed Gillespie, media consultant Doug McAuliffe, and your writer as the pollster, set out early to establish Bob as different than Republicans have been in the past few elections – strong on issues that matter most to people.
Our goal back in last winter/spring was to tie on the top issue of jobs/economy, stay close on transportation and education, and win on tax/spending. Ultimately, Bob would end up the campaign with double digit advantages on four of those five issues, and would be tied on education.
Policy has always been important to Bob McDonnell, and his leadership on this segment of the campaign set the tone for the team. Bob had a great record as Attorney General – his proposals both helped people and garnered bi-partisan support, which made the Deeds message about Bob being a rabid right-winger not ring true to voters.
The campaign organized issue teams, which put together a number of significant policy options for Bob to put together his issue priorities, which we then tested with in-depth polling. The polling did NOT determine the policy ideas, but did elevate some as the ones to highlight to the electorate. Doug McAuliffe coined the phrase: “Bob’s for jobs” which became the central theme of the issue campaign.
Thus, the McDonnell campaign dominated the issue agenda in the campaign. Creigh Deeds, whose last ad ironically talked about substance over style, hardly ever talked about issues during the campaign. His was a campaign devoid of reasons why he should be governor, whereas the McDonnell campaign – from the candidate to the ads to the website – clearly communicated that Bob had a plan.
One of the most important ads we ran was relatively early in the campaign, and only ran in downstate markets (it was before we were advertising in the DC DMA). It was Bob to camera talking about his energy plan, which included green jobs. It defined Bob as a forward-looking leader, who is for all of the above – oil, coal, solar, wind – a blend of both traditional and alternative energy.
Deeds was perceived as running the more negative campaign by a 54%-24% difference. That sized differential is the kiss of death in politics. At the end of the campaign, Deeds lashed out at the negative nature of the McDonnell campaign, but his complaints fell on deaf ears for several reasons.
First and foremost, when we did define Deeds, it was on issue-based contrast. Voters generally do not think issue differences – especially on the key issues of jobs, spending and taxes – are negative. Instead they see those contrasts as legitimate areas for battling in a campaign.
Secondly, and just as importantly, Deeds never defined himself. On paper, Deeds was our toughest opponent of the three Democrats running in the primary. He had a great personal story to tell, and he was the more natural heir to Tim Kaine/Mark Warner than either wildman Terry McAuliffe or liberal Brian Moran.
However, rather than tell his story, Deeds followed the direction of his patron, the Washington Post, and jumped all ad nauseum on the thesis that Bob McDonnell wrote 20 years ago. It was an intellectually lazy way to run a campaign. Rather than first define Deeds, they just decided to hit Bob as a right-wing woman hater with ties to Pat Robertson. It turned out to be the equivalent of illegal immigration in 2006 for Republican candidates. Yea – the thesis may have polled as a concern to voters, but it was well-overshadowed by jobs, spending, and taxes – just as illegal immigration was a concern to voters, but not comparable to Iraq and the economy in 2006.
The stunning part of the Deeds failure to define himself manifested itself when we would convene focus groups of swing voters. Before doing the ad testing segment, I (serving as the moderator) would ask participants what the candidates were saying about themselves and about each other. When I asked what Bob McDonnell was saying about himself, swing voters were able to recite our positive messages back to me. However, when I asked what Creigh Deeds was saying about himself, I got blank looks, shrugs, and one word responses: “nothing.” When it was consistently happening in focus groups, it was pretty clear that Deeds had failed to make the case to be governor.
Thirdly, a lot of the GOP definitional messaging of Deeds was using Deeds against himself. His bumbling performance in the post-debate press gaggle was legendary. His painful-to-watch equivocation on taxes did tell voters that his instinct in hard times is to raise taxes, but it also told voters he was not to be trusted, because he clearly was uncomfortable answering hard questions.
Barack Obama and Democratic control of Washington also played a role in the McDonnell victory, as Deeds himself ruefully noted in the first of several battles between his campaign and the White House. As we have noted on this blog several times before, voters still like Obama personally, but they have significant doubts about his policies, particularly on fiscal issues and the size of government. Bob found a very receptive response from swing voters when he would talk about policies that hurt jobs, spending, and taxes.
Watching the level of voter concern toward the Obama administration’s policies (you say progressive, I say liberal, let’s call the whole thing off) in an actual campaign underscores the opportunities for Republican candidates in 2010.
Overall, Bob McDonnell’s victory in Virginia breaking the losing streak was a combination of the candidate controlling the issue agenda, our opponent failing to deliver any positive vision for Virginia, and the national political environment tilting slightly Republican for the first time in five years.