Thursday, January 26, 2006

Campaign Strategy 101

As a Republican official said after playing one of the school voucher attack ads to members of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. last week: "The governor's race in Wisconsin has started."

So far it appears to be the Republicans who are coming out on the offensive. Let's run down the the apparent strategy:
  1. Secure the Base: With TABOR down, although probably not completely out, the big issues here become the two G's--guns and gays. The most heated right now is over the concealed carry bill, but the real firestarter as November gets closer will surely prove to be the anti-gay marriage amendment. Anti-gay rhetoric has been a benchmark of the Bush/Rove election strategy since the Texas governor's race in 1994. While the tactic of choice in '94 and '00 was spreading rumors of pro-gay sympathies among opponents, the tactics matured (I use that term loosely) by '04 to become the proposal of a federal anti-gay marriage amendment less than ten months before election day and the inclusion of anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot in eleven states. Since all eleven amendments passed and, more importantly for the Republicans, brought droves of social conservatives to the polls, the tactic seems to be a sure-bet to heat up election day in Wisconsin come this November. (Update for the Curious: Bush won nine of those eleven states, including the quite-important state of Ohio.)
  2. Attack the Opponent's Base: The headlining issue on this front so far is school vouchers. The City of Milwaukee is a key base group for the Democrats. The emotional and deceitful pleas to the black community and the side-stepping of the facts by conservative Milwaukee voices like Charlie Sykes and the grandstanding by politicians like Mark Green and Leah Vukmir yesterday is clearly evidence the goal here is exploitation not resolution. While the tide appears to be turning a bit, conservatives have largely won the message battle on this one up to this point. I have spoken to people who I consider to be fairly attuned to current issues, particularly local ones, and they didn't even know that Doyle and the Democrats are proposing an enrollment cap increase for the voucher program, let alone the fact that this proposal has been on the table since last November. Democrats can try to blame the mainstream media for this misinformation, like Jessica McBride does every time she doesn't get to practically write the story, but the fact remains that Democratic politicians haven't been aggressive enough on this issue. Take Mayor Barrett's very fair proposal from yesterday. If the Democrats picked up on this proposal, one the Republicans rejected off hand, they could transform the debate from one about just helping inner-city poor kids to one about helping those kids and protecting Milwaukee families by championing fair property tax relief. But since Barrett announced his proposal yesterday, the only response from both sides of the aisle has been crickets chirping. And while it's in the best interest of Republicans to ignore reasonable proposals and stall on this issue, that is not the case for Democrats.
  3. Grab the Middle's Attention: This is where the travel contract indictment, the tire-slashing trial, and other alleged Democratic Party improprieties come into play. Even if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Georgia Thompson has direct connections to Doyle, a highly unlikely scenario, the liberal base is still going to pull the lever for the Democrat while the conservative base is going pull the lever for the Republican. That won't change. Who these issues will affect are those people who don't consider themselves close followers of politics, but also feel that trust and openness in government are extremely important. This is key because it means that Republicans don't need to necessarily prove the case against Doyle, all they need to do is muddy the waters by screaming about it. All it needs to be on election day is, "Hey, isn't Doyle the one who ripped off the taxpayers by giving some contract to a company that donated money to him?" It doesn't matter that the connections will probably turn out to be very weak, if they even exist at all, between Thompson and Doyle or that what Thompson did actually saved the taxpayers money. It's about planting a seed of doubt.
Undoubtedly some of these issues will change over the next ten months, but the three-tiered approach will likely stay the same. Indeed, what I laid out here is not news to most people who are reading this blog. You already knew it. But I did this not only to concisely show the Republican strategy, but also to demonstrate the lack of a concise strategy on the part of Democrats thus far.

This post was easy for me to put together. It's probably taken about 10-15 minutes, and the majority of that was just time to type. When I try to think about doing this for the Democrats, I can't even think of where to begin. I can think of a few things the Democrats are doing, but to be quite honest--they're all defensive strategies born out of the Republican offense described above. In part that's because Doyle is the incumbent, but incumbency doesn't mean a clear offensive strategy is unnecessary--particularly in a state isn't at all afraid to elect a Republican governor and keep him in power for over a decade.

Right now Republicans are controlling the debate and subsequently the road to the Governor's Office. It's about time for the Democrats to start playing some offense.

Update: I've added a couple links at 6:40pm. The content is the same.

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