The 2018 election will be the first mid-term election with a Republican in the White House since 2006, which was a grim year for Republican candidates.  That year, Republicans lost seats long presumed to be theirs.  On the same day, however, other Republicans who had been losing at some point in October came from behind to win, including several in Democratic-leaning seats.  The goal of this memo is to lay out steps to take to strengthen your odds of winning.

How to Approach 2018 

1. The last three mid-terms have been difficult for the party in control of the White House.  Expect no different this time.  If the mid-term is not difficult (unlikely), then the worst thing is you strengthened your political operation ahead of a contentious 2020!

In the 2006 mid-terms, when George W. Bush had a 39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approval rating, Republicans had a net loss of six gubernatorial seats, six U.S. Senate seats, 30 House seats, and 332 state legislative seats.

In the 2010 mid-terms, when Barack Obama had a 45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approval rating, Democrats had a net loss of six gubernatorial seats, six U.S. Senate seats, 63 House seats, and 680 legislative seats.

In the 2014 mid-terms, when Obama had a 42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approval rating, Democrats had a net loss of 3 gubernatorial seats, 9 U.S. Senate seats, 13 House seats, and 306 state legislative seats.

Make no mistake about it.  Last night was not just a bad night for Republicans in Virginia.  The GOP lost three state legislative seats in Georgia special elections held in wealthy suburban districts, and were defeated in many other elections around the country.  It is better to prepare for the worst than to be surprised if it comes.

2. The first step is, not surprisingly, raise significant money.

If a wave election is coming, money for the incumbent in the embattled party does not solve all problems.  There are plenty of Republicans who won in 2010 and 2014 despite being outspent.  But it helps.  As Damon Runyon often noted, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

Communicating with voters takes more avenues and more money than ever before.  Even though TV is not as effective as it once was, it is still the main driver of reaching voters.  TV ad prices are not getting cheaper.  And, dominating the digital space is more important than ever.

Do not assume that, if you are floundering, that the party or Super PACs will step in and rescue you.  Do not wait to be bailed out – it is a wide playing field and you might get left out.  Not running a strong campaign is not an option… it means you lose.

3. The second step is to pay for the best, most in-depth opposition research your campaign has ever done. 

The best way to win in a difficult political environment is to disqualify your challenger opponent.  As the saying goes, voters prefer “the Devil they know versus the Devil they don’t know.”  Lest there be any confusion, as the incumbent, you are the Devil they know.  Voters are risk-averse.  If they think voting for the challenger from the out party is too risky, they will not.  If they think there is little or no risk in voting for the challenger from the out party, voters will not hesitate to elect them.

Do not believe that old saw of “don’t give name ID to your opponent by defining them.”  There are two kinds of name ID – good or bad.  Give them the bad kind.  There are many mid-term challengers  who only had favorables in the low to mid-30{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} range, and yet they won because their unfavorables never got close to their favorables.  Your goal should be to drive your opponent’s image upside down.

Opposition research needs to be on-going.  The process does not stop once you get the initial report.  Your opponent will make mistakes throughout the campaign.

4. The third step is to do an early message testing survey.

Survey research helps you spend the rest of campaign resources – money, message, volunteers – more intelligently.  Polling should focus less on the horse race and more on message testing.  What works, what does not work?  In an election in which every communication matters, you need messages to be as tight and focused as possible.

Also, include focus groups in your research plan.  They are an underutilized tool for understanding how voters talk about the political environment, how they respond to messages, and focusing the tone of the campaign.

5. Then, start your campaign earlier than you planned, and make the race about your opponent.

Driving up your opponent’s unfavorables is going to take a while.  Flood the zone with contrast or negative messaging as soon as it makes budget sense.  Digital is a very good, relatively inexpensive way to get this started.

6. Turnout is going to be crucial because Democrats are going to flood the polls.

Remember the good old days of 2010 and 2014 when Republicans were motivated to send a message to Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid?  Well, the shoe is on the other foot now.  Virginia shows how motivated Democrats are.  In the 2013 gubernatorial race, Democrats had a five point composition of the electorate advantage on party ID.  In 2016, it grew to seven points.  This year, the exit polls show it at eleven points.  Thus, in one four year span, Democratic advantage on party more than doubled.

The number of votes cast in the 2017 Virginia Governor’s race was 354,817 higher than in 2013.   Democrats cast approximately 235,600 more than in 2013, while Republicans cast approximately 61,400 more than in 2013 – a net 174,000 turnout growth advantage for Democrats.  (Independents cast approximately 31,750 more than they did in 2013).

Gillespie actually won Independents by three points, but to overcome the turnout differential between Democrats and GOPers, he would have had to win 66{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Independents.  He also received more votes than the last two winners in Virginia – Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe, which really underscores the Democratic turnout boost.

Do not wait till Labor Day to start planning your turnout operation – start planning it now.  The wind is at the back of the Democrats, making it easier to turn their highly motivated voters out.  Turnout is going to be more difficult than it was in 2010, 2014, and 2016 for us.

7. Your polling will identify target groups, but some demographic groups are universally important for Republicans.

Key groups for Republicans in 2018 will vary slightly based on your district’s demographics and your polling, but given the challenges we are seeing in our polling, it is a likely bet that it will include Independents, soft Republicans, white women (especially those who are married or those without a college degree), men who are college graduates, non-married men, younger voters who are not Democrats, moderates, upper middle-class voters, and middle/upper income voters.

That is a huge list of key groups, but that’s the political world in which we live.  It used to be that if a Republican won senior citizens, Independents, and tied with women, that was enough for victory.  Now, certain groups, such as college-educated women, are so out of reach for GOPers that we have to come close to off-setting that vote deficit among women without college degrees.

You should have one-two pages in your campaign plan for each of the demographic groups in the first paragraph of this section.  Plans can be adjusted, but start it now.

8. Pay particular attention to suburban voters.

Gillespie did great in rural areas, often running ahead of Trump’s 2016 vote percentage.  Northam’s margin was built on the backs of suburban voters.  Democrats also did well in other suburban races throughout the country on Tuesday.

9. Final point – be aggressive.

In 2006, a number of Republicans in Congress won election despite the Democratic wave.  In the Senate, Bob Corker was the only Republican to win by less than five points, and he had to come from behind to do it.  In the House, a number of Republicans ran aggressive races to overcome voter anger over Iraq, Katrina, and Mark Foley.  Those who were trailing or tied at one point and won include Heather Wilson, Vern Buchanan, Peter Roskam, Jon Porter, Michelle Bachman, Jim Walsh, Steve Chabot, Jim Gerlach, Dave Reichert, and perhaps more.  Those were all campaigns that our firm worked with that year, so we know that aggressive, well-run campaigns can survive IF a wave election happens.

Do not sit on a lead.  Elections are rife with incumbents who polled, saw a big early lead, and throttled down in the campaign, only to be upset.  Just because a challenger has little name ID now does not mean a big lead will hold.  This is no cycle to rest on your incumbency.

The Bottom Line

Issues are in flux a year out.  The political environment can shift.  However, it is best to assume recent political history in mid-terms will repeat itself rather than be a 2002-style mid-term.  Certainly other must-dos will become clear in the next ten months, but it is better to plan for the worst and benefit if the political environment does get better than to sit back and wait for a bad mid-term election to come at you.

Raise money.  Do opposition research.  Test messages.  Target key groups.  Start early.  Be aggressive.

Public Opinion Strategies