Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't bet on it: The Foolish MN DFL Strategy for 2012

One of my favorite political cartoons shows a pollster calling a woman, asking: “If the race were held today...” Before he can finish the sentence she replies: “I would be very grateful.”

The sentiment of this woman captures how many of us feel about politics and campaigns. We just cannot wait for them to end. Unfortunately, with the endless campaign cycle it seems elections never end. No sooner had the 2010 elections ended the 2012 election cycle began. Michele Bachmann, even before being sworn in for new term in Congress a couple of weeks ago, already floated a presidential bid. Rumors persist who will run for president, polls are being done on the Minnesota Senate race, and other calculations are being undertaken regarding what will happen in 2012. For Democrats, especially in Minnesota, the hope is that 2012 will be a kinder year for them than 2010 when they lost control of the state legislature for the first time in a couple of generations. All this may be barking at the moon.

I say this because the other day I was talking to one of my friends who lives in Minneapolis. He recounted a conversation with two DFL legislators there recently. When they were asked what it was like to be in the minority, they both responded that they will be back in power as the majority after the 2012 elections. By that, they are counting on the coattails of Obama and Klobuchar and overreach by the GOP to turn a miserable 2010 Republican year into a good 2012 Democrat year. Don’t bet on it.

This is a naive strategy. It is effectively one that says when the voters regain their sanity they will again vote for Democrats. This is a purely defensive and passive strategy. It depends on the steps and missteps of others in order to get elected. This is the fundamental problem with the Democrats for the last 40 years. In 1972 McGovern’s slogan was “Come home America.” Notice how well it worked. In 1984 Mondale’s was “America needs a change.” It did not work. The failure of both candidates was in part the inability of Democrats to offer a compelling narrative to counteract that of the Republicans. Democrats cannot always count on disgust with the GOP and missteps by the latter to get elected. They need to offer a narrative, to provide a set of policies that serve as an alternative. They need to stand for something.

Additionally, Democrats need to fight back if they want to win. The Republicans know how to do that. The Democrats don’t. After 2008 the GOP developed a plan, a message, recruited well, and they took advantage of the Democrats screwing up or failing to define themselves and the GOP. Right now I see little sign that the state DFL is doing any of that.

Maybe the GOP will falter nationally and statewide. Maybe they will overreach. Maybe Obama and Klobuchar will do well and get reelected. But do you want to trust your fate in variables beyond your control? That is what the state DFL and the legislators seem to banking on as a strategy.

Yes, the opposition making mistakes creates an opportunity. But you need to do more than that to win and then to govern effectively. Begin now defining the narrative and themes for what the party stands for. Do focus groups, recruit candidates, and develop a game plan now regarding how you plan to take back the legislature and govern.

There is no guarantee of Obama and Klobuchar wins and coattails. Don’t bet on it for an electoral plan for 2012.


  1. Boy, oh boy, do I agree with this post. I think that Klobuchar is going to win re-election; she is personally popular. But I am not sure about her coattails, and I doubt that Obama will have any.

    The DFL got sucked into the downdraft of a national election in 2010, and thinking it will be otherwise in 2012 is folly.

    I should add that it is remarkable how infrequently I am paid for my political advice, but that's how I see it.

  2. Strength at the top of the ticket can help drive turnout, but it won't translate to down-ballot electoral success without other contributing factors: strong candidates, consistent messaging that fits with the candidates at the top of the ticket, sufficient financing to get name recognition up, sound strategic investment at all points of the campaign, and that's just a start.

    But the state DFL needs to start by looking at where they lost a number of the seats the had gained to take control of the House last time, and where they built their high majority in the Senate: suburban districts. They need to look at why voters turned on those incumbents in the last election and why the party fared so badly in the suburbs.

  3. Josh:

    You make my point exactly!

    Steve: Coattails, as you note, only get you so far.

  4. As a DFL candidate this last cycle (and I plan on running again), there are a couple of things I learned (among many):
    First, the GOP nationalized local elections. On the phone and at the door, voters in 52-A didn't want to talk about property taxes; they wanted to rail against the health insurance reform act. They weren't concerned about class sizes; they wanted to cut off welfare. Since we didn't have a national election to give us air cover, I think that hurt us.
    Second, the GOP message was one of fear, and the DFL message was one of facts & figures. Emotional arguments always defeat rational arguments. We need to craft a message of empathy, showing that GOP policies are causing actual harm to human beings with names & faces.
    Not saying facts don't matter, but they have to be wrapped in an emotional presentation.