Craig “Campaign Doc” Varoga is a longtime Democratic strategist and manager. Questions on strategy, general consulting, or anything campaign-related? Send questions using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @CVaroga or CVaroga@Varoga.US and he’ll answer them right here.
Q: I’m a first-time Democratic candidate, and I hear a lot of frustration on the campaign trail. How should I be talking about President Trump? Also, in the same vein, how should I be talking about the economy?
A: What didn’t work in 2016: Sixteen inept, weak, waffling, complacent, enabling and now mostly forgotten primary opponents who didn’t deal with the 800, now 8,000-pound gorilla in the room. Ditto (read between the lines) for the fall of that year.
What might work in 2018: What worked in 2017 in Virginia.
“In most cases,” said Josh Ulibarri, a pollster with Lake Research Partners, “we are advising clients not to say a lot about Trump.”
Ulibarri advised Virginia House Democrats last year when they increased their seats in the state’s House of Delegates from 34 to 49 (out of 100), an historic and unexpected win recognized nationwide as the largest Democratic gain in a single election in the state since 1899.
His rationale for 2018 is that voters hear enough about Trump already and there are very few people who don't have strong pre-existing opinions about the man.
Moreover, Ulibarri notes, too much attention on Trump (his personality, latest tweet, staff turbulence, rally, phone call, whatever) “makes everything partisan and political,” potentially turning off swing voters. Likewise, it makes sense, as it always has, for candidates to define their own positive agenda, including economic programs and protections for everyday Americans, and then “show how Trump and the Republican agenda makes this worse.”
In other words, give voters something positive to vote for, and then tell them how Trump puts these people-driven goals at risk.
Q: Energize or expand the base?
A: Imagine a baseball coach asking whether his or her team should have only pitchers or hitters. Or football coaches inquiring whether to limit their teams to either the quarterback or wide receivers. Or corporations thinking that they could succeed with only product and no marketing. Or the Pentagon saying choose only one, the Army or the Navy.
Sounds ludicrous indeed, and it’s the same with the false choice between energize (turn out the base) versus expand (persuade undecided voters). You need both, and eliminating either one is purely and mind bogglingly self-destructive.
Q: What is the future of opposition research when there are so few undecided voters and neither side will believe a single bad thing about their preferred candidate if it comes from the opposition?
A: According to Mike Rice, a veteran research strategist who has worked on hundreds of campaigns and for numerous nonpolitical clients, “A highly polarized electorate presents challenges for every consulting specialty, opposition research included.”
Rice underscores that fewer undecided voters increases the urgency for how campaigns communicate with this shrinking share of the electorate. “In this environment,” he says, “a campaign’s need for accurate, defensible attacks and contrast points to use in communications and polling doesn’t disappear, it is magnified.”
Good, credible, documented competitive intelligence will still win campaigns because “the persuadable audience is more discriminating, so oppo firms better up their games.”
Corollary: Bad research will be exploited as never before by your opponent, creating more noise and motivating turnout by the other side. Game up!
Q: What are your least favorite marketing pitches for election services?
A: One, the unsolicited and repeat messages from a cable consultant touting his firm’s ability to segment audiences cost-efficiently on behalf of my GOP clients and Republican issue campaigns. Duh, I’m a Democrat, talk to me more about your targeting expertise.
Two, the consultant whom I’ve never met, who claims that I “rock” and that he especially enjoyed my recent speech in Nashville, which was raucously received by the conference attendees. Duh (again), I didn’t recently speak in Nashville, unless there really is an alternative universe out there that’s uniquely accessible to American political types.
And three, one guy who sight-unseen emailed promises of kickbacks if I successfully promoted him with my clients. It was a long time ago, but remains a Hall-of-Famer because it combines questionable ethics with idiocy.
Craig Varoga consults on local, state, national and international campaigns and is a regular political analyst in numerous news media. Send questions using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @CVaroga or CVaroga@Varoga.US.