AK-AL Update: Why Sean Parnell Lost

The final numbers are in. Congressman Don Young has won the highest turnout primary (40.6%) in Alaska's history by 304 votes. Because the margin is less than 0.5%, Sean Parnell was afforded the right to a state-funded recount. Instead, the lieutenant governor conceded today and said in a statement that because his campaign was based on "treating taxpayer dollars with more respect and greater care," the margin does not justify "an expenditure of taxpayer funds." Here's exactly how close it was:

  • LEDOUX, Gabrielle: 9901 votes - 9.34%
  • PARNELL, Sean: 47891 votes - 45.19%
  • YOUNG, Don: 48195 votes - 45.47%

While I still won't disclose who I voted for because of my previous position within the Alaska Republican Party, I do know there are a lot of readers and writers on The Next Right that were fans and supporters of Sean Parnell. I've made some of the following points before, but they need to be made again in order to give a full analysis of why I believe Sean Parnell lost. And, yes, like a fellow Alaskan political operative repeated to me today, "Don didn't win. Sean lost."

1. Overestimation of the Value of an Endorsement, Unpopularity of Your Opponent

Another political operative friend in Alaska who voted for Sean called me today and said something interesting:

"I'm actually sort of glad that Sean lost. It taught him that relying on an endorsement as well as the incumbent's unpopularity as a campaign 'strategy' is never enough. And it should serve as a lesson to other candidates."

Point well taken. There's a much shorter way of making this point: Sean got lazy. (And I sort of don't blame him. He's won every election he's run in so far from state house to state senate to lite gov. Why change anything?) Apparently, Parnell was up as much as 30 points on Young back in April, and even 12 to 15 points 2 weeks before the election. Endorsements are always overrated, even if your endorser has an 80%+ approval rating. The truth is a good double-digit percentage of voters probably did not know who Sean Parnell was. Sarah Palin and Don Young both had perfect name ID in Alaska. But the popularity of your top endorser and the unpopularity of your opponent can never ... *REPEAT* NEVER ... be a replacement for building your name ID.

Bottom line: Parnell never defined himself, as a person or a public servant. He depended on Palin's endorsement to increase his "public servant" profile without pounding in his own great story of how he has had his own successful legislative and private sector career, independent of Palin. Some saw Sean's "quiet and non-confrontational" personality as a weakness. But one of the most important strategies in politics is to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Sean could've compared his persona to Don Young's, but never took the opportunity to drive that home.

2. Parnell Not Only Lacked a Coherent Paid & Earned Media Strategy, He Lacked Tactics As Well

In a previous post on the Presidential race, I made the following analogy about the two campaigns' post-convention motions ... Obama : Software Updates :: McCain : Hardware Upgrades. Catriona made a better analogy ... Obama : Short Term Tactics :: McCain : Long Term Strategy. That point can be extended to this congressional primary election.

My sense is that Parnell tried to make a carbon copy of the Palin for Governor campaign two years ago. Example ... Parnell hired the same local media/PR firm that Palin used for her campaign: Walsh Sheppard. With all due respect to this firm, their ads and paid media "strategy" for Palin did not win her the election two years ago. In fact, her TV ads were pretty poor. Palin won because of the thousands of dollars worth of free media she got ... the same now millions of dollars worth of free media she's giving to the McCain campaign right now. The paid media message should've played off of what I said above. Instead, the following is the best ad they had, which included Palin. 

As the same friend from above pointed out, Palin should've been in the whole ad, not just a small part of it. The messages in the ad were all over the place; there was no consistency.

On the other side, Don Young's strategy was clear: turning his weakness into a strength. Young is known as "Mr. Bluster" as the Anchorage Daily News likes to call him ... having a tendency to show an abrasive side to his personality. He turned that into a message that worked: being a "fighter" for Alaska, and not being ashamed of it. That produced this ad from the Young campaign:

Think what you may of Don Young, but this is a good ad that is a part of a good strategy. Furthermore, Parnell had a press conference a week or two before the election to respond to an attack made on him, and Young, from a DCCC mailer. Young crashed that press conference and said to Sean right in front of all the cameras that they should've had a joint press conference because they were both attacked. Sean had no idea how to respond or react. Great tactic from Young. This shows that the Parnell campaign not only had no idea how to formulate a message strategy; they couldn't even muster up tactics to pull them through. Which leads me to my next point ...

3. Club for Growth Involvement: Costs Outweighed the Benefits

Bottom line up front: all politics is still local. The Club for Growth ran anti-Young TV and radio ads very early. The problem? It gave sufficient time for a much smarter Young campaign to respond by saying that the Club for Growth was "anti-Alaska" as pointed out in the above ad. When the Club for Growth's support of Sean Parnell became a issue in dueling press releases and in a televised debate, Parnell went on the defensive when it came to earmarks, giving a weak verion of the "earmarks-are-ok-but-the-earmark-process-needs-reform" argument. And as it has been pointed out by Patrick in an earlier post on the presidential race, being on the defensive is a campaign killer.

Money from individuals affiliated with the Club for Growth was a significant percentage of Parnell's campaign warchest. While taking money where you can is not a problem, Parnell never successfully shedded himself of this connection: Club for Growth = anti-Alaska, Club for Growth = Sean Parnell $$$, therefore Sean Parnell = anti-Alaska. Blame Sean for not going on the offensive, or maybe blame the Club for Growth for over-extending their influence in this race. The fact is that it's all about Alaska for Alaska voters, just as it's all about Iowa for Iowans.

4. The Gabrielle Ledoux Effect

The third candidate in the race who garnered almost 10% of the vote was Gabrielle Ledoux, a state legislator from Kodiak. When she started running ads, she went from 1% to 10% in all of the polls in the month before the election. She ended up taking votes from both Don and Sean. But with a 304 vote margin, the "Gabrielle Ledoux excuse" is somewhat easy to make for Parnell.

Without a doubt, Ledoux's ads and message worked to get her from nothing to almost double digits. The real question is how she got to that point in the first place. Ledoux has a reputation of being a great fundraiser in Alaska. That, and putting her own money into the race, probably gave her the opportunity to run quality ads. At the end of the day, when the final FEC reports come out, I won't be surprised if Ledoux's ad buy was significantly larger than Parnell's.

Note to candidates: acquire a little shamelessness, get on the phone, and raise money!

5. The Absentee Vote Program, or the Lack Thereof?

Let's ignore, for a second, everything I've said above. And let's assume that this was going to be a tight race all the way from the beginning. There is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking on the GOTV front when you lose by 304 votes. Identifying supporters in a primary is tough, and you really have to earn every ID you get.

Rumor has it that the Parnell campaign had no absentee voter chase program. If this is true, you have to be kidding me! The absentee edge always goes to the candidate with higher name ID, which in this race was Don Young. So if there was any campaign that desparately needed an absentee voter chase program, it was Sean Parnell's campaign.

In conclusion ...

I have a lot of respect for Don Young, Sean Parnell, Gabrielle Ledoux, and Sarah Palin, and I hope everybody involved in this race doesn't take this analysis personally. The point is that Parnell's loss should serve as history that should never repeat itself through other candidates. If we're going to successfully build a new and revitalized GOP farm team, all the work any national organization does won't be worth a dime if the candidate and their grassroots campaign can't get it together when it comes to the advantage of knowing their "field."

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You don't think Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee's endoresements of Don Young helped drag him over the edge?   

I don't think endorsements sway too many people, but Paul and Huck are both popular figures among their supporters (and in Alaska) and probably delivered well over 300 votes.

Lack of Absentee Chase is insane!!

I would have to agree that if there was no absentee chase going on then they have only themsleves to blame.  IF you know that there are "x" amount of votes that people hold in their hands at home and you do not do anything to try and get those votes...well you are not doing your job right.

Lessons learned.

Sean will be needed as AK gov

After the election he will assume the mantle of AK governor.  This will be a good thing as it will prevent the RINO establishment (which is reponsible for Ted Stevens and Don Young) from taking back the governorship and probably losing it to a DEM like Tony Knowles in the next election.  We  need him to keep the reform of that state's government ongoing after Sarah Palin becomes VP.

Correction on Absentee Chase

I just received an FYI email from a Parnell campaign staffer ...

"The Parnell campaign sent 10,000 mailers chasing absentee ballot requests."

So scratch #5 off of the list.

I still highly suggest that future party organizations and campaigns consider a GOTV 2.0 plan that looks at long-term ID programs, as I have mentioned before.

I must retract my post as well

If they sent out 10,000 mailers for their absentee chase; very well done!!   

Damn shame

Young's victory puts Alaska's Senate seat at grave risk of going to the Democratic Party.  Parnell would have been a much better candidate who might have given the Dem a real run and a chance to discuss real issues.


Palin seems to have little if any coattails here?