With election cycles come anticipated patterns in political reporting that detail the viability and strategic decision making of campaigns. This coverage offers insight into how candidates are navigating major and minor hurdles in the run-up to Election Day.
The tick-tock of fundraising, polling data, and even what the projections of absentee ballot returns mean are clockwork storylines that make up much of what’s written from start to finish in a cycle. These variables allow political forecasters the ability to project the strength of a candidacy and even their odds of achieving success.
But the next layer of analysis, and the one that often dictates fundraising strength, polling results, and viability, is the effectiveness of a campaign’s messaging strategy.
At the outset, a candidate’s team is charged with building a communications effort that will bolster their “base” while simultaneously appealing to swing voters. The typical checklist includes how to best distill one’s personal narrative, the candidate’s vision and policy platform, all while considering how their messaging relates to their party leaders.
For a state-based campaign, this typically means determining the appropriate way to be supportive or critical of their governor or party’s nominee in a contested year. And at the federal level, competent candidates must thoughtfully manage the treatment of when, where, and how they explain their positions compared to their own party’s president or nominee. In both cases, this requires weighing the popularity of those individuals with voters.
The tougher the environment, the more exhaustive this analysis must be. It’s news-making when a candidate breaks with party leadership, or alternatively when standing by their side during moments of turbulence. But when handled correctly and authentically these tough decisions may yield dividends.
In thinking of this exercise through the lens of 2020, it’s important to be mindful of the obvious. Intensity and “tribalism” in partisan politics has increased across the spectrum during and since the 2016 presidential election.
To that effect, public polling data indicates the presidential contest is driven by intensity of support both for, and against, President Trump. This fact is an important calculation for down-ballot campaigns to be cognizant of for their own messaging strategy.
There’s evidence of this in a recent CNN study, where among registered voters who indicate they would vote for Trump if the election were today, 70 percent say their vote for him is “more a vote FOR Trump.”
In sharp contrast, only 37 percent of registered voters who select Biden say their vote is FOR Biden, while a majority (60 percent) are supporting Biden as a “vote AGAINST Trump.” To put it simply, Trump supporters are with Trump because of Trump, while Biden voters are motivated to support him as a referendum on the president.
So what does this mean for down-ballot, incumbent Republicans and those running in open or challenger races? Recently, National Journal ran a story called “2 Campaigns, 1 Party” in which the author detailed analysis from the Daily Beast and the Washington Post about the lack of Senate advertising mentioning the president, along with concerns relating to instability in recent polling for the president.
But like all news cycles in an election year, history reminds us this isn’t just a Trump-era anomaly.
A snapshot of headlines from 2014, the last cycle when Democrats were defending their Senate majority, tells a similar – and if not clearer – story of how incumbents playing defense were managing the challenge of trying to maintain their base while winning the middle.
A Time piece titled “Vulnerable Democrats run away from Obama” detailed Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) “distancing themselves” from Obama’s energy and environmental policies, while also highlighting the late Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D-N.C.) criticism of President Obama’s lack of support for veterans.
Another article from 2014 that ran in Delaware’s The News Journal notes that Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) “distances himself from President Obama” in his first campaign ad of the cycle. Coons went on to win reelection with 56 percent of the ballot share that cycle. Hagan, Begich and Landrieu, however, didn’t return to the Senate.
To be sure, news cycles about down-ballot candidates and their treatment in mentioning or even drawing contrasts with the president are far from behind us. Similarly, thoughtful campaigns must remain vigilant in appropriately determining if, when, and how they voice support or even contrast themselves with the top of the ticket in a tremendously tribal environment.
Ashlee Rich Stephenson is Vice President and National Political Director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.