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The media narrative that features nervous Democratic pols, activists, and consultants wringing their hands about Elizabeth Warren’s supposed campaign inadequacies has another entry. Dan Payne, a political commentator at WBUR radio in Boston recently published a column on the station’s web site called “What’s Wrong with the Warren Campaign.” In it, he clearly and cogently lists and describes several popular complaints about Warren’s campaign to date. I’m not referring to complaints from Republicans, mind you; Payne’s list of problems actually represents the fears of nervous Democratic “insiders.”
It’s important to note that I do not dispute the reasonableness of ANY of these complaints in the abstract. All of them are common problems in campaigns in general, but none of them are serious problems in the Warren campaign presently, thanks in large part to the peculiar context of the 2012 Massachusetts US Senate race. Rather, each of these “problems” Warren is said to have are based on the assumptions that candidate performance in the media over the next two months will be the deciding factor in this contest; and that the election will be decided by so-called “swing voters” whose calculations will not be impacted sufficiently by party leanings or President Obama’s coattails if Warren doesn’t win the “media message war” by out-performing Brown on the “likeability” front over the next two months. Fortunately for Warren, neither assumption is reasonable in this race at present.
Emblematic of Payne’s list is his take on TV commercials. He writes: “TV spots are the campaign. The bulk of voters don’t go to rallies or follow the campaign in the news. To them TV spots are the campaign. I agree with my GOP sparring partner, Todd Domke, that Brown’s TV spots are much better than hers. His are unique to him; hers look like they were stamped out in a D.C. media factory. Brown’s are more organic, they’re about real people not statistics. Hers are boilerplate stuff that could be made for any Democrat running for Senate anywhere in America. Even if she’s great on the stump, it doesn’t follow that she’s should do all the talking on TV.”
Obviously “TV spots” and the other elements of the “media message war” are important, but they are definitely not “the campaign,” at least not yet. Fear that Warren’s TV commercials and campaigning style are not slick enough or personal enough may have merit in the abstract, but they are at best premature in this race. The idea that Warren is way behind in the media war and should have started becoming more confrontational and personable months ago is wrong. Warren’s argument for election is different than Brown’s. His commercials have and will continue to focus voter attention on positive images of his character and negative images of Warren’s. In this he has essentially no choice. If voters aren’t sold on his pitch that he’s a “moderate, pro-choice Republican” and Warren is a dangerous extremist, then he can’t win.
Complaining that Warren needed to engage Brown more directly on this point already represents a failure to see the “big picture.” Instead going after Brown early and often, Warren has maintained a campaign theme that is consistent with her primary argument for election, which is that this election isn’t about the candidates; it’s about the country and about helping President Obama overcome the extremism and obstructionism of Washington Republicans. A campaign shouldn’t pivot away from its argument to its opponent’s unless or until that opponent seems to be getting too far ahead. The 5-6 point advantage for Brown registered in polls from late August doesn’t meet this standard. The “momentum” Brown camp is despirately trying to tout is a mirage.
Would Brown’s team be doubling-down on direct personal attacks on Warren’s character right now if they had momentum? Remember, there are no third party attack ads at this point. Brown is doing his own dirty work, in his public comments and on a campaign website recently launched for the express purpose of smearing Warren’s character. In political campaigning 101, you learn that it’s important to frame your opponent early, especially when you are going after her character, because the closer to Election Day you use “mud-slinging, the more likely you are to get some on you. Brown’s willingness to risk his “nice guy” reputation in September signals fear and desperation, not momentum.
And what about Brown’s ad featuring President Obama, intended to convey the message that he has and will be a good partner to the president and therefore deserves the votes of Obama supporters? Doesn’t this signal the Brown campaign’s acceptance of the fact that Warren’s argument about the race has legs? Isn’t his airing of such an ad after Labor Day, when many more voters are tuned in, a great opportunity for Warren to respond with the her big guns now, without having wasted their impact during the summer doldrums? Don’t you think Warren’s team understands the value of holding fire “until you see the whites of their eyes,” so to speak?
In September and October Warren surrogates like the president himself, Governor Patrick, former president Clinton and others can be featured in “spots” directly (or indirectly) refuting Brown’s characterization of his relationship with the president and reinforcing the notion that a vote for Brown is a vote for Republican control in Washington. Can’t you just see Bill Clinton saying that Brown’s belief that he and the president worked well together must be similar his belief that he had secret meetings with kings and queens, or than he personally saw classified photos of Bin Laden’s dead body? Would such testimonials have been nearly as potent in July? How could Brown respond to this approach? Who are his surrogates? Ray Flynn? A bunch of ex-Democratic pols? Where is his presidential candidate? Why does Brown refuse to embrace Romney and Ryan? Isn’t it MUCH better for Warren that these questions are still newsworthy in September, largely because she didn’t waste them during the summer? How many Obama voters are really going to take the Indian heritage “scandal” seriously in the face of the onslaught of nationalized rhetoric and un-rebuttable testimonials from Democratic stars that Warren will no doubt deploy in the coming weeks? How do you suppose a TV spot featuring Michelle Obama talking about Elizabeth Warren’s character would impact the so-called “media message war?”
Like the nervous Democrats he interviewed for his piece, Payne’s obsession with the media campaign leads him to underestimate the value of Warren’s voter identification, contact, and GOTV operations, arguing that “[p]iggybacking on Gov. Deval Patrick’s field organization might add a point or two to her total.” Payne seems to think that these organizational activities are not vehicles for the transmission of campaign messages, but rather just efforts to keep loyal voters engaged. The reality is that because Warren will win if President Obama’s coattails are long enough, her field operatives have an easy to communicate “rallying cry,” which should be helping them to expand, not just identify, the base. Furthermore, the impact of field operations often does not show up in the polls until late in the campaign. The efficiency and effectiveness of her field operations are one of the reasons Warren can afford to exercise patience in the so-called “air war,” which is a luxury Brown doesn’t seem to enjoy.
If Scott Brown has a 10 point lead on October 1st, then Democrats should hit the panic button. If not, then they should continue to stick to the plan and have confidence in the many political, structural, and timing advantages that their candidate enjoys, including the degree to which party leanings actually impact real voters on Election Day, even self-identified “independent” voters.