Lessons from Virginia and Massachusetts

On Sunday, January 24th, the lead op-ed in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post was written by Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse.

Here are some of the highlights from the article:

We had the privilege of serving as pollsters in two of these three victorious Republican campaigns, in Virginia and in Massachusetts, and we found that the two races had many elements in common. Together, they offer a blueprint for how the GOP can keep the momentum going into the midterms this fall and beyond.

The quality of the candidates matters most.

In two of the recent elections, the candidates themselves were the key factors. Bob McDonnell’s campaign in Virginia introduced him as a family man focused on policy issues such as jobs and transportation; in Massachusetts, Scott Brown was an articulate candidate with an ability to stay on message — on national security, health care and the need to change Washington — even when he was being pummeled with negative ads. Both candidates were able to communicate that they were regular people with a vision for how to make things better.

Obama no longer walks on water, but don’t be disrespectful.

The president’s health-care plan was a net negative — not just in Virginia, but also in Massachusetts, where a week before the election we found that 56 percent of voters preferred to start over with a new approach to health-care reform rather than pass the current proposal. Massachusetts voters still like Obama personally — Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio’s election-night survey found he had a 59 percent favorable rating — but his presence, once deemed godlike, now does nothing for Democratic candidates.

The lesson for GOP midterm hopefuls: Welcome the president to your state. Stage counter-rallies and highlight doubts about his policies, but do not attack him personally. Show respect for the man and the office, but shine a bright light on your substantive differences. (A corollary to that is that George W. Bush is now firmly in the electorate’s rearview mirror. If Democrats couldn’t make him resonate in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Northern Virginia, it’s not going to work elsewhere, except maybe Manhattan and Los Angeles.)


The Republican base is fired up.

After more than three years in the wilderness, GOP voters are chomping at the bit. Virginia Republicans were consistently more interested in the election — by 20 points — than Democrats throughout our daily October tracking polls. In Massachusetts, even after Obama came to the state, Republicans were seven points more interested. Nationally, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that voters who rate their interest in this fall’s elections as a nine or a 10 on a one-to-10 scale prefer GOP control of Congress by 15 points.

So, who’s going to show up in November — a group brimming with enthusiasm, or the Obamabots who surged to the polls in 2008, but who hadn’t voted previously in big numbers and show little interest now? Republican candidates must harness that energy to build a grass-roots — and netroots — army.

Ultimately, it’s all about the independents.

It’s great to have the base excited, but Republican candidates were shellacked in 2006 and 2008 among independent voters (losing 57 to 39 percent in the midterm vote and 51 to 43 percent two years later). By contrast, McDonnell won 66 percent of independents in the Virginia governor’s race, while Brown was leading 65 percent to 26 percent among Massachusetts independents in our final tracking.

McDonnell’s campaign targeted independents, particularly in Northern Virginia, who responded to messages about jobs and fiscal responsibility. Brown, meanwhile, ran as an independent-minded candidate and a “Scott Brown Republican,” as he called himself. Among independent women (a problematic group for Republicans in recent elections), Brown managed to turn a nine-point deficit into a 31-point lead in just 10 days. In his victory speech, Brown called his election a great triumph for Massachusetts’s independent majority.

Republican candidates who win independents will take the oath of office — period.


Deflect negative attacks and get back to your message.

Deeds and Jon Corzine of New Jersey started their negative assaults early; Coakley went negative late. None found the Goldilocks timing. But huge credit is due to the Republican campaigns in all three states: They responded to the attacks but stayed on message.

For the midterms, rest assured that negative attacks are coming; they’re all the Democrats have this year. They don’t want to run on their record of lost jobs, special payoffs for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), and government control of car companies and health care. Remember, trends are trends until they change, and the trends of the past few years have been wiped away. For Republicans, it’s simple now: Stand strong, tell the truth, and remind voters why they should vote for you.

Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse are partners at Public Opinion Strategies. Bolger served as the pollster for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s campaign, and Newhouse served as the pollster for Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s campaign in Massachusetts.

Public Opinion Strategies