After all the finger-pointing and hand-wringing are done over Martha Coakley's once improbable Senate loss in Massachusetts, Democrats have to stop scapegoating (bad candidates, bad polls, bad advice) and start to figure out how they can stop what is shaping up to be an electoral disaster this year.
Lots of Democrats blame their 54-seat loss in the House in 1994 on a lack of preparation and hubris. This year, they say, they're ready for the fight. With enough preparation and money, they can define the contours of their races before the political mood and their opponents do it for them. Coakley, for her part, didn't seem to take Republican Scott Brown or the mood of the electorate all that seriously. By the time she finally engaged him, it was too late.
Independent voters weren't expecting miracles from Obama. What they did expect, however, was that he'd live up to his promise to change the way things work in Washington.
Yet the "too little, too late" blame game doesn't tell the whole story. In the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests, for example, the Democratic candidates didn't wait until the last minute to launch attacks on their opponents, and they came up short too.
In the end, attacks only work if they are believable. This is especially true when voters are angry about "real things" like the economy, the deficit and health care. As such, for Democrats to go after Chris Christie's spotty driving record in New Jersey, or Bob McDonnell's graduate thesis in Virginia, or Brown's record on emergency contraception for rape victims not only seemed out of context, but also woefully out of touch with the issues that were really driving the vote.
In a blog post last night, Brown's pollster, Neil Newhouse, wrote that "one of the lessons Democrats are taking away from this race is that they need to go negative against Republican challengers earlier in the campaign. Be advised that this race turned and turned fast, following the debate on January 11th when the Coakley campaign launched their negative advertising. Within days her image was almost inverted and her 'information flow' was a net negative. Being perceived as the negative campaigner moved key groups against Martha that she could never win back. "
This helps explains how independent voters, who supported Barack Obama in all three states in 2008, broke so sharply against the Democratic candidate in 2009-2010. Christie carried 60 percent and McDonnell 66 percent. There were no exit polls in Massachusetts, but public and private polls showed Brown winning independent voters by similar margins.
How did three very different Democrats lose independents in three very different states? All three failed to show how they would get beyond politics as usual. It was the promise of change in Washington that these folks voted for in 2008, and what they saw from Democrats was simply more of the same.
Soon after the November 2008 election I attended a focus group of 12 voters from the Northern Virginia suburbs. These were classic independent/swing voters. Most of them had supported George W. Bush in 2004 and half had voted for GOP Sen. George Allen in 2006. But all voted for Obama in 2008. They were realistic about the difficulty the new president was going to have in turning around the economy. They weren't expecting miracles from him. What they did expect, however, was that he'd live up to his promise to change the way things work in Washington. Here's what I wrote then about that focus group:
"Even if he [Obama] does succeed, however, it's not a given that these voters will stick with him four years from now. In fact, he could easily lose them if he gives even the slightest hint that he's gone soft on his promise to change the way Washington works. These voters have personally invested a great deal in Obama. If he lapses into partisan gamesmanship, they will feel that the failure is theirs -- that they believed in something that just isn't going to happen."
Democratic candidates in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts tried the same old approach to wooing these independents. Yet, in this environment, traditional attacks aren't the silver bullet. Voters want to end "politics as usual" -- grainy attack ads with forbidding disembodied voices sure doesn't sound or look like change.
This isn't to suggest that Democrats simply drop negative advertising and go for a purely positive approach in the 2010 midterms. That won't work. But they do need to do as much work in defining themselves as they do their opponents. This means finding a way to meet independent voters where they are now -- angry and frustrated and fed up with Washington.
Joining with them in this frustration while upholding the importance of a Democratic majority and a Democratic president is a tough balancing act. Good thing they have nine more months to figure out how to do it.