negative ads

Why Lisa Murkowski Lost

[It's been 1 year and 4 months since I wrote my last blog post here. For readers of The Next Right, I left my position as the RNC's Deputy Research Director back in May and am currently a Senior Communications Strategist with New Media Strategies in Rosslyn, VA. It feels good to be back in the blogosphere.]

Lisa Murkowski has now conceded. I have a great amount of respect for Joe Miller, but I have been a loyal supporter of Lisa Murkowski since her 2004 campaign. As a conservative from Alaska, I have disagreed with her positions on a few issues, but I believe she has been a good Senator for Alaska. Murkowski has been a thoughtful policymaker among her peers as well as an articulate leader on several key national issues including energy security.

Yet despite the enormous amount of admiration I have for her, I believe Murkowski has no one to blame except her own campaign for what is a stunning primary defeat. Bottom line up front: Lisa Murkowski's primary campaign should serve as a lesson in what not to do when you are being attacked by your opponent.

There has been a lot of talk about how wrong the polls were, the ballot initiative concerning abortion, and why Lisa Murkowski decided not to "go negative" on Joe Miller. Yet it's just not as simple as that. Here are four very interconnected reasons why Lisa Murkowski lost:

Nothing to Lose

Has the McCain campaign considered that the time to change their ad strategy is NOW, and only because two weeks ago is no longer an option?

In the last month, McCain's favorability rating has dropped 6 points, from 56.4 to 50.1, and Obama's favorability has increased, from 55.3 to 57.4, according to the RCP polling average.  The Obama-focused campaign is not working.

Now Election Politics 101 dictates that when you're down and your opponent is hovering at 50% in electoral polls, it's time to enlighten voters to the negative aspects of your opponent, commonly known as "negative" ads.  The McCain camp followed this rule to a tee.  And in this case, it did not work. 

They can blame the media and say it's because the media has a double standard for the two campaigns, and they do.  They can probably blame the failed negative ad strategy on other factors as well.  But the bottom line is it has not worked, and it's time to change course.

Rather than set their sights on Obama's unfavorables, how about playing to their strengths? Remember the McCain bio videos -- those that recount his experience as a war hero, a man who suffered for the sake of his country and his country men and women?  What happened to the Country First theme dominating the Convention?

And we never saw ads that tout McCain's independent, pragmatic record in the Senate.

No scramble necessary to concoct concepts, use McCain himself, at his best.  There's a reason this guy was popular -- at times.

Perhaps there is concern about shirking the playbook and going back up with McCain-centered ads with 20 days left to play.  Yet, the reasons for going positive at this point grossly outweigh any conceivable risk:

1) McCain may not win, but I'm sure he would prefer for it to be close rather than get trounced by a Senate newbie like Obama.

2) McCain may not win, but he doesn't want to be responsible for a Democratic filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a Democratic deluge in the House.

3) McCain may not win, but he can go out on a positive note and preserve his pride and his image.

4) McCain may not win, but he's not winning anyway, and he has nothing to lose.

While McCain's chances of winning are slim and getting slimmer every day, his campaign owes it to themselves, their supporters, and the Republican Party ... and John McCain ... to go back to basics.

Attack Misfires

Patrick Ruffini quotes Phil Singer arguing that, in order to effectively exploit "the fact that McCain voted 90% of the time with Bush", they can't just assert that McCain = Bush.  They have to "generat[e] some real time examples of McCain hugging Bush" and "force the Republican to choose between opposing the Bush Administration OR adopting the Bush position on an issue playing out in the headlines."

Maybe.  The Obama campaign's counterpunching has been masterful in the past, but it was also more subtle - jujitsui, rather than the harsh and sloppy attacks he's been launching recently.

Attacking McCain and Palin is still a very risky tactic for Obama.  Obama actually is going negative quite often, and his nomination acceptance speech was pretty clearly an attempt to establish the "bar room fighter" credibility with the Democrats who are still anxious to establish some alpha-male bona fides - to assert themselves on the political dominance hierarchy.

And it keeps backfiring.

The Obama campaign's attack on John McCain for his war injuries is a perfect example of poorly considered negativity - of attacking just for the sake of being on the attack.   In fairness, Obama probably didn't know why John McCain didn't use a computer.  Or care enough to find out. 

Side note: Joe Trippi wrote that Howard Dean, netroots hero, was a "self-described technophobe".   The New Yorker reported that  "Dean's staff regarded him as a luddite."

The fact that the Obama campaign hadn't considered either (a) the reason that McCain didn't use a computer, or (b) the potential blowback their attack sets up ("which prepares someone to be commander in chief better, hitting “send” on AOL or fighting a war?") is evidence that they're floundering and a bit desperate. 

The Obama campaign has a narrative - McCain is out of touch, Bush 2.0 - but they're having trouble finding material that resonates.  They are pursuing what Ruffini called the "Attack 1.0" model; they are trying to hit McCain where they want to score points, rather than attacking McCain where he's genuinely vulnerable.

Finally, forcing McCain to choose between opposing or supporting the Bush administration, as Matt Singer suggests, also poses similar risks to the Obama campaign. For instance, upon news that "President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan", Radley Balko says "The Obama campaign should be making a much bigger deal about this."

Does Obama really want to assert that John McCain would be cautious about sending troops to a nuclear-armed country, while Barack Obama would have done what George W. Bush did?   Yeah, I'm guessing we're not going to see that commercial.


I should add: the McCain camp has been doing badly, too. 

  • The absurd, farcical outrage over "lipstick on a pig" was embarrassing - about which, I'd like to associate myself with the remarks of both Tom Bevan and Megan McArdle.   
  • McCain's ad attacking Obama for allegedly supporting "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarten students was egregiously deceptive.   It was also counterproductive.
  • Among independents who reported that they were leaning toward McCain prior to viewing the ad, there was a decrease in support of 8% for McCain. vBefore viewing the ad, 51% of responders who indicated they were leaning toward Obama said they were “definitely” voting for him.  After viewing the ad, 57% of this segment indicated they were definitely voting for Obama.  This suggests that the ad strengthened support for Obama among a segment of independents.


Obama’s “Karl Rove Style Negative Campaign”

It’s official, Obama isn’t just running a negative campaign, he's running an all-out smear fest.  Obama’s Ralph Reed ad accusing McCain of being in bed with Jack Abramoff is especially Swift Boat-like.  He's going after McCain’s strength in a very Rovian way, never mind how baseless the attack is.

The Obama campaign is counting on the classic “he started it” argument and a docile media to let him continue his Different Kind of Campaign shtick, and without some very aggressive action from the McCain campaign that’s exactly what will happen.  McCain’s press shop has been admirably swift and aggressive in rebutting Obama’s attacks, but they need to run a paid media play as well.

McCain should run spots during the Democratic National Convention hitting Obama for corruption (see Rezko scandal, Freddoso’s new book) and hypocrisy (for running a “Karl Rove Style Negative Campaign,” literally use Rove’s name, it’ll spark a fantastic press frenzy).  The spots are primarily about disrupting Obama’s convention coverage and would be a perfect hook for the party’s robust Denver strike team.

Check below the jump to see 9 of Obama’s recent negative spots.

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