Fat Steve's Blatherings

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Washington Post Commentary, concluded

      On Thursday, as you may recall, I was critiquing a pretty good article in the Star-Tribune that was reprinted from the Washington Post.  Or rather, I was critiquing the first third, because the Strib just cut it off suddenly.  Time to finish commenting on the article as the Post printed it.

      It's worth noting again Edsall's and Grimaldi's remark that:
Kerry, faced with a difficult primary campaign and infighting and turnover among his consultants, did not begin seriously to address the general election until after his Super Tuesday primary election victory in March, eight months before the November vote.

      In plain language, Kerry had no ideas about persuading the voters to elect him President when he began his campaign.  Somehow, I'd think any competent politician would have thought about that somewhat earlier.

      I think we see here Kerry as a victim of Massachussetts liberalism.  "All politics are local," Tip O'Neill said, and Kerry has been elected there enough that he's forgotten the rest of the country is different.  Kerry doesn't like Bush and the Republicans, the MA voters don't like Bush and the Republicans, the activists who dominate the primaries and caucuses don't like Bush and the Republicans -- and those are the only people Kerry ever really talks with outside the Senate.  The fact that about half the country had voted for W. in 2000 never registered, emotionally.

      The Post says
At two junctures, when Kerry was either out of funds or under pressure to conserve resources for the close of the campaign, the absence of an overall strategy had damaging consequences: in March 2004, just when the Bush campaign began its first anti-Kerry offensive; and in August 2004, when the Swift Boat Veterans commercials raised questions about Kerry's service in the Vietnam War.

The Democratic media 527s "didn't do what we wanted done," Kerry media adviser Tad Devine said. "We would have run ads about Kerry, we would have had answers to the attacks in kind, saying they were false, disproved by newspapers."

Harold Ickes, who ran the Media Fund, a 527 organization that raised about $59 million in support of Kerry, said the federal election law prohibiting communication with the Kerry campaign created insurmountable obstacles in crafting effective, accurate responses to anti-Kerry ads. Ickes said he regretted not responding to the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks, but at the time he thought they seemed "a matter so personal to Senator Kerry, so much within his knowledge. Who knew what the facts were?"

      In the first place, as I wrote in the Strib portion of this critique, there apparently was a lot of coordination between the Kerry campaign and the 527s.  In any case, with so many in the media as sympathetic to Kerry as they were, the whole communications problem could have been easily dealt with.  Just have a reporter, or a blogger-reporter such as the Daily Kos ask the legitimate news question "Senator, how do you respond to these charges?"  Whatever Kerry would have said would appear in the MSM and on the web, and the 527s could promptly use it to script their responses.  They didn't do this because they were once more preaching to the converted.  No Bush or Swift Vet ad was going to make them vote for Bush, so they didn't see the need to answer the Bush campaign.  Ads attacking Bush energized them, so they'd work with the general public. Wrong.

      This all speaks to another of the Democrats' problems, their contempt for everyone who doesn't already think their way.  I've bogged on this before, and I'll say it again, confident it won't be listened to: "Lose the attitude and the certainty you're always right."  Until Democrats respect the people who disagree with them, they won't be able to communicate with them.

      Ickes was right, though, when he said of Swifie attacks "Who knew what the facts were?"  To answer the Swift Vets, Kerry had to respond personally.  His failure to do so was probably because he couldn't think of anything to say.  'Yeah, I hoped the U.S. would lose in Viet Nam' was not a winning platform.  'I was an idiot when I was that age' isn't much better.  'I was wrong, and here's how I made those mistakes' might have worked, but it risked alienating a large part of the base.  But the true reason they weren't answered is probably 'It never occurred to me that the ads would be effective.  The same attacks were made in MA, and they didn't hurt me then, so I didn't expect them to work in 2000.'

      Edsall and Grimaldi write "Early Research Is Like Yeast", a pun I love.  Having decided to concentrate on mobilizing "soft" Republican voters instead of concentrating almost everything on the undecided, the GOP used the elections of 2002 as a testing ground for their 2004 campaign.  The result: instead of losing seats, as usually happens, in the House the GOP picked up six seats, the Senate went Republican with a two seat gain. 
Republican firms, including TargetPoint Consultants and National Media Inc., delved into commercial databases that pinpointed consumer buying patterns and television-watching habits to unearth such information as Coors beer and bourbon drinkers skewing Republican, brandy and cognac drinkers tilting Democratic; college football TV viewers were more Republican than those who watch professional football; viewers of Fox News were overwhelmingly committed to vote for Bush; homes with telephone caller ID tended to be Republican; people interested in gambling, fashion and theater tended to be Democratic.

Surveys of people on these consumer data lists were then used to determine "anger points" (late-term abortion, trial lawyer fees, estate taxes) that coincided with the Bush agenda for as many as 32 categories of voters, each identifiable by income, magazine subscriptions, favorite television shows and other "flags." Merging this data, in turn, enabled those running direct mail, precinct walking and phone bank programs to target each voter with a tailored message.

      Very interesting, but I'd like to know who is being quoted in the phrase "anger points," and just what the context was.  As it is, it's spin: 'the Republican voters are all Neanderthals who are angry about something.'  Still, I can't complain too much, there.  The Dems will read that, nod sagely, forget how angry their own voters were, and screw up some more in 2006.

      A larger point is the way the information revolution hits ever wider areas of society.  It's hard to conceive of such tailored messages being affordable in the past.

      Meanwhile, what were the Donks doing? 
Democrats had access to similar data files. But the Bush campaign and the RNC were able to make far better use of the data because they had the time and money to conduct repeated field tests in the 2002 and 2003 elections, to finance advanced research on meshing databases with polling information, and to clean up and revise databases that almost invariably contained errors and omissions.

"Very few people understand how much work it takes to get this technology to actually produce political results. We are one election cycle behind them in this area," said a Democrat who helped coordinate voter contact in the 2004 campaign.

The Bush campaign's early fundraising success made much of this possible. By March 2004, Bush had $110 million in the bank and virtually no debt. During this period, Kerry was forced to spend all his time and money in the Democratic primaries, a fight that cost him $36 million and that left him $5 million in debt.

"Nobody was giving a thought at all to the general election," said Kerry pollster Mark S. Mellman. Until that March, "it was: How do we survive this week?"

      Well, Democrats, even if Kerry wasn't doing that, the DNC should have been thinking about it.  In fact, as you find when you refer back to the beginning of the article, it was the RNC that did that research for Bush.  So why weren't the Donks on the ball?  Inquiring political junkies want to know, and inquiring reporters should have pressed on this.

      The article then notes the Republican ads attacking Kerry, which Kerry failed to respond to, do to lack of money, while the 527s ran what may have been the wrong ads.  The same points I made above about getting the 527s on board apply.  Additional point: maybe the Kerry camp was wrong about what was needed (their judgment during the campaign seemed poor, and still does in retrospect).

      The article also notes
the Swift Boat Veterans ads, the first one airing on just four cable channels at a cost of $546,000. The Swift Boat Veterans eventually would raise and spend $28 million, but the first ad was exceptionally cost-effective: most voters learned about it through free coverage in mainstream media and talk radio.

      Edsall and Grimaldi fall short here.  They might have noted that if Kerry had responded, the same media that brought the ads to people's attention would probably have carried Kerry's response.  Again, the big problem was that Kerry didn't have much of a response.

      Edsall and Grimaldi might also have linked to some of the Post's own articles on the Swiftie's ads. I always thought the Post did the best job of analyzing the issue in the MSM. While heavily biased in Kerry's favor, they did note that Kerry had not, for example, released all his records despite claiming to do so, and that his Cambodia story had fallen apart.

      Another good point from the article:
The Bush campaign's early strategy decisions shaped GOP spending. Under the guidance of Rove, Dowd and Mehlman, the Bush campaign had financed early research into ways to communicate to center-right voters through nontraditional media.

The Bush campaign concluded that many of their voters did not trust the networks and the establishment press, and therefore did not trust messages transmitted through them.

      Arguably, the question 'Just why is it the Bush voters don't trust "the networks and establishment press" is not part of the story on how campaign money was spent, but I'd expect the question to be raised 'Did the Kerry campaign ever realize this?  Did they do anything about it?'

      One reason the MSM isn't trusted is on display in the article itself.  The last three paragraphs of the story read:
"They did a lot of stuff really well. They were ahead of us," said one of the Democrats' get-out-the-vote managers who did not want to be identified. "They had a strategy set by the beginning that they were going to live and die by. And we didn't."

In an election with a 2.6 percent margin of victory, the Bush campaign was run to ensure that every dollar went to fulfill core strategies, that resources were allocated to capitalize on Bush's strengths and on Kerry's vulnerabilities, and that the money necessary to finance research, technological advance, television and the ground war was available when needed.

At the July Democratic National Convention in Boston, McAuliffe commented on the disciplined Republican team: "We are up against the dirtiest, meanest, toughest group of people we have ever faced. They have money, they have power, and they ain't going to give it up easily."

      The statement that the Republicans were ahead of the Democrats, did things well, and had a strategy they stuck with is a legitimate, informative part of a story about campaign spending.  A judgment that every dollar the Bushies spent was disbursed in accord with strategy, capitalized on Bush's advantages, and was there when needed is good, unbiased analysis.  McAulliff's statement that the Republicans are dirty, mean, tough, and not going to give up easily tells you nothing about how well the two sides spent their campaign money.  It does say volumes about Edsall, Grimaldi, and the Post, though.  I wonder if they realize just how much?



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