WATCHING the televised punditry about the elections, I felt pummeled by commentators repeatedly using the same clichés — most of which happen to be dead wrong.
The Three Worst Offenders:
ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL. Tip O’Neill’s observation is no longer true. Safe one-party Congressional seats in Boston 50 years ago were local, but only because a few thousand Democratic primary voters chose the winner.
In this election, all politics was global. The voters of Mishawaka and La Porte, Ind., were more influenced by the sectarian politics of Baghdad than by the election-eve announcement by their Republican congressman, Chris Chocola, that he’d gotten $1.4 million in federal money for a local mental health center. He lost.
THIS IS THE MOST NEGATIVE CAMPAIGN EVER. Negative campaigning has been around since the beginning of our democracy, and voters reward it. If people voted against negative ads, you’d never see any.
The most criticized ad of this election poked fun at Representative Harold Ford of Tennessee. The political speech police labeled it racist because it featured a flirty blonde teasing Mr. Ford, who is black, about a Bacchanalian Super Bowl party that he allegedly attended and I’m sad to say I did not. Sure, the spot was inane, but the worst ever? In 1964, the president of the United States ran an ad implying his opponent would start a nuclear war. It’s hard to get more negative than that.
THIS ELECTION WILL ALL COME DOWN TO TURNOUT. Nonsense. We Republicans took a beating on Election Day, but it had nothing to do with turnout. ‘ The problem wasn’t that our voters didn’t turn out, it was that our voters alone are not enough. Turnout is important: it is essential to winning primaries (since so few people bother to vote) and very close contests.
Most general elections, however, are decided by the independent and ticket-splitting voters in the middle who swing between parties. When the swing voters stampede toward your opponent, you are usually toast.
Examine exit-polling estimates from the Senate race in Virginia. George Allen won 94 percent of the Republican vote and Jim Webb won 93 percent of the Democratic. Since more Republicans than Democrats vote in Virginia, Senator Allen should have won. Instead of splitting the swing vote, however, Mr. Webb thumped Mr. Allen among independents by 12 points. It was the same in Montana and Ohio and, well, just about everywhere. It is the real reason we lost the House and Senate.
Successful campaign management means using message to be far enough ahead in most races — especially in districts and states where you start with the advantage — that you are never in such deep trouble that you wind up needing an improbably high turnout of only your base vote to win.
Swing voters respond to policy and persuasion, not process spin. The cocky Republican talk about magical 72-hour plans in the last weeks before the election was unfortunate proof that the party’s high command had forgotten this most basic fact of politics, at least until the rough news of last Tuesday. Of all the clichés this year, this one was the most damaging for Republicans to believe in.
Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant and screenwriter.