Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Election Hindsight: Handling the Negativity

The Clifford camp ran a hard race. I have little doubt those who participated in the campaign did their best to win and that should be commended.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. If Clifford pulled out the victory, a post like this wouldn't exist. It's easy to say things should've been done differently after the results are tallied.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't critically examine how things went to better prepare for future races. And that next State Supreme Court race is just around the corner with Justice Louis Butler's seat up next year, although the lessons of the Clifford campaign are certainly transferable into other elections.

When a margin of victory is as large as it was in the Clifford-Ziegler race, there are probably a number of factors involved in the outcome. But I have to agree, at least in part, with Nate when he writes:
Clifford and her Democratic posse gambled on a strategy of giving voters as little information as possible about her, while simultaneously attacking Ziegler like a pit bull. I think its fair to say that such a strategy back fired.
I wouldn't say the Clifford camp was trying to hide its candidate, at least not consciously, but the emphasis on attacking Ziegler is unquestionable, and those attacks did serve to drown out any positive message that Clifford had to offer. But, even worse, the attacks didn't fit into any logical framework that voters could easily understand.

It seems the left forgot the lessons of the gubernatorial election last fall: At least in statewide races, negativity works best when it complements a campaign theme, not when it defines it.

Just check out the ads that were run by the Clifford side in the race. Aside from a spot or two on the newspaper endorsements Clifford received, everything else is about Annette Ziegler. And after those hits on Ziegler, there wasn't a clear and logical bridge leading voters back to Clifford.

To be sure, while Ziegler was clearly just as negative with her ads, that negativity fit into a simple, effective, and consistent frame: Clifford = activist attorney, Ziegler = experienced judge. In other words, Clifford's alleged weaknesses fed directly into Ziegler's alleged strengths.

It's just like in the gubernatorial race when Doyle's "Green is extreme" line dovetailed perfectly with his campaign's message on stem cell research. When Green hit Doyle on ethics, conversely, he had little to follow it up except lame assurances that he was a good guy.

Clifford, likewise, followed her ethics charges against Ziegler with the fact that she had extensive legal experience along with the backing of a number of newspaper editorial boards around the state; but those points are only peripheral to the issue of ethics. That just isn't going to play as well as the activist attorney vs. experienced judge frame.

I don't have anything specific to offer that could've helped the Clifford campaign create a more seamless link between its negative message and its positive message, and it would be pointless to speculate on that level of detail. But the clear lesson for future races is that negativity cannot be a standalone enterprise.

And while simply balancing the amount of negative with the same amount of positive may be better than leaning heavily on the negative, the best results come when the negatives of the opponent lead voters directly into the positives of the candidate.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the primary, the Clifford camp did chip away at Ziegler's lead -- but that's another way of saying that Clifford lost this one many weeks ago, in the primary.

The only reason for that is if there is not enough funding to fight from the start -- but that's not the reason in this case, since Clifford had a lot of funding. Frankly, her ads came out so late that I bet there will be money left over.

The lesson for the Butler campaign is simple: Don't wait until after the primary. There is far more debate on negative ads but far less about the basic rules of politics that primaries matter, especially in off-year elections: that once voters have voted for you, they'll stick with you.

Clifford lost this one a long time ago -- and this was only the main reason. She also never really got out there on the campaign trail; those of us on the usual lists for liberals and/or for women hardly heard a thing about events to hear her speak. Maybe that's because she already had enough money, but there are other reasons to get out and campaign. She never did.

In the end, but from the beginning, it simply looked like she didn't want the job as much as Ziegler did. As for why Ziegler and her camp wanted the job, we all now should worry, thanks to Clifford's non-campaign.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Dad29 said...

I think both of these analyses (the post and the Anony) are correct (and complementary.)

But I think Ms. Clifford also had another problem; that is, she could not reveal her judicial philosophy. The fact is, she's an "activist" liberal.

And that's a political position, not a judicial one--so she was kinda stuck.

She came close enough so that Z. began using "I'm not going to be a legislator..." taglines and that may have driven the nail into the coffin.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...


Clifford is an "activist" judge in your view, but there is a strong legal backing for her position on the interaction between the constitution and an evolving society. It's conservatives who have politicized it by claiming that position is "activist," but a strong contingent of legal scholars and constitutional historians would disagree whole-heartedly with that characterization.

This article in the Wisconsin State Journal the other day gets into that a little.


You may be right about Clifford not hitting the campaign trail enough. But I disagree that the campaign was over by the primary. 287,646 votes were cast in the primary; 811,450 votes were cast in the general. It was very much an open contest after the primary.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Ben Masel said...


Damn right i'm an activist. I'll actively fight to protect your Privacy... etc.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Maybe better for a politician, Ben, but not a SC justice or judge.

The framers of the US Constitution were clear that the document wasn’t intended to be static; this is demonstrated not only in the availability of an amending process, but also the broad terms in which it and its amendments were constructed.

Plus, if it was intended to be static, why is the constitution silent on the issue of constitutional interpretation? The debate over constitutional interpretation is centuries old, so without question the founders were aware of the ramifications of leaving it out of the constitution.

The fact is the constitution was originally intended to be interpreted, and those interpretations come from a combination of current societal perspective and precedent (which, of course, itself is influenced by societal perspectives).

Applying the phrase “judicial activism” to this is baseless. And, if it wasn’t, you’d need to call Anton Scalia a judicial activist for writing the majority opinion in the 1991 case Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak that strengthened the notion of sovereign immunity for states in spite of the fact the 11th amendment – which was the basis of the decision – says nothing about protecting states from suits by its own citizens, only citizens of other states. And that’s just one example among others.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Russ said...

Clifford said Milwaukee school choice should be revisited. That's code for school choice should be overturned. Seth if that isn't judicial activism I don't know what is. This liberal obsession to protect government controlled monopolies from competition is really getting irritating. If the majority of citizens of Milwaukee want school choice they should have school choice. The same should apply to any school district in Wisconsin. Majority rules. Linda Clifford apparently does not grasp the fact.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

"That's code for school choice should be overturned."

Put down the Kool-Aid, Russ. Clifford's campaign was not a vast conspiracy to overturn the voucher program, and no one is even talking about doing away with private K12 education to give government a monopoly over it.

Here is what Clifford said: "I think in the future we're likely to see, and I'm very interested in, changes in public financing of education and the First Amendment issues that relate to school choice, the voucher program, because I think those are very profound issues that affect our state from all kinds of different angles."

Even if someone used the 1st Amendment to go after the voucher program, it would only pertain to using public funds -- hence the focus on public financing -- for religious schools in the program, not the program as a whole.

And let's not forget what Ziegler said about the voucher program: "On the school choice issue, it seems the issue is settled based on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but I don't know if someone would present a new or novel issue that would need to be resolved by the court."

Is that "code," too?

April 04, 2007  
Blogger vyborg said...

If Clifford came out and said she was a judicial activist she would have done much better. By not doing so she gave the appearance of a waffler, was before I was against type of presentation.

The only activist judges I know are on the right. They are the ones rewriting privacy laws, wanting to overturn precedent, and burn the constitution.

Strict constructionist is code for not believing in the 14th amendment. If that's the case they have no business being on the supreme court or any court in this country for that matter.

Me, myself, and I are broad, ACLU, strict constitutionalist. Lets be honest the so called activism we are talking about is being obstacles to terrorist organization like WM&C who subvert democratic decision making and individual rights.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Russ said...

The Supreme Court, and that includes newly elected Justice Ziegler, had better start taking the wishes of citizens seriously. The citizens of the City of Milwaukee want school choice. School choice has been adjudicated and is settled. It is time the liberals and teachers union accept it.
This recent trend of some state supreme courts legislating from the bench must stop.

April 04, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...


Much of this is getting into how "activist" is defined.

Clifford made it clear during her campaign that she believes in a "living" constitution, which puts her in a legal camp alongside US Supreme Court justices like Thurgood Marshall, Louis Brandeis, and Stephen Breyer, as opposed to the strict contstructionst camp inhabited by Scalia, Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas.

But the fact is either camp can engage in "judicial activism" depending on the circumstances, since activism -- in its most fundamental sense -- refers to shooting down laws created by the legislature, which is something that can happen through either interpretive camp. Activism also can be used to describe using the constitution to "create" rights that aren't explicitly stated in the constitution; and like my example above on sovereign immunity makes clear, that, too, can come from either camp.


No one is going to invalidate the school voucher program. But that doesn't mean the Wisconsin Supreme Court can't or shouldn't rule on pertinent cases that may effect the way in which the voucher program is structured or funded. For the time being, though, the voucher program as it currently exists is settled law.

April 04, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Russ, the citizens of Milwaukee have not been asked if we want school choice. Yes, I am one. Was there ever a referendum on it?

It has been expanded by conservative legislators from the rest of the state. It is destroying my schools -- and my taxes are going to religious schools.

I think that is damned unconstitutional. But what I think, as a citizen of Milwaukee, doesn't matter. I wasn't asked.

April 04, 2007  
Anonymous m.z. forrest said...

I'll go with the easy argument: Clifford wasn't a credible candidate. She's a civil attourney. Ziegler quite frankly fell on the lower end only having 10 years of judicial experience.

I think the weak on crime attack, which is all the sex offender attack was, failed on two counts. First, it is a charge that appeals to the conservative base and not the liberal base. Conservatives weren't going to believe that Clifford was the Law & Order candidate because there was nothing in her past to suggest it. With voter turnout at 20%, I don't think there were many maleable voters. Second, Ziegler had already received significant endorsements from DAs and Police Chiefs. Those endorsements typically go to the Law and Order candidate. It was a gross contradiction and poor strategy.

April 04, 2007  

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