Shaftan: Why Cuccinelli Really Lost
I’ve been reading various articles analyzing the Cuccinelli defeat and nearly every one of them missed the mark. Here’s my view of why Ken lost and my debunking of many myths about this election, which a lot of people aren’t going to like.
KEN HAD NO MESSAGE
More than a year ago I spoke with Ken and was surprised that the rumors he was running for Governor were true. Based on his record and his strong beliefs, I fully expected him to run for reelection and then the Senate in 2014 as his focus had always been on national issues and not so much on state issues. I hung up the phone with no idea why he was running or what his message was (he mentioned something about Medicaid Fraud) and millions of dollars later, no one else seemed to know either until perhaps the final 72 hours.
KEN SPENT THE WHOLE CAMPAIGN TRYING TO WIN THE VOTES HE WASN’T GOING TO GET
Rather than firing up the base in a low-turnout election, he took his core constituency for granted and spent the entire campaign trying to “soften his image” and “inoculate” against future attacks. None of this worked. McAuliffe’s hard-hitting ads punched Ken right in the gut while Ken focused on a non-ideological message of ethics – the identical campaign Barry Goldwater ran in the 1964 general and with similar results. Not once did Ken ever use the word “conservative” to describe himself nor the word “liberal” (or something similar) to describe McAuliffe. Ken became the “right-wing nut” but never made McAuliffe the “left-wing nut.”
KEN TURNED HIS AG POSITION INTO A NEGATIVE
With three solid years as AG and a strong record of advocating for conservative causes and against the radical Obama Agenda, one would have thought this record would be a centerpiece of the Governor’s campaign, but instead he focused only on two things: freeing someone wrongfully imprisoned for rape and trying to defend the Virginia Sodomy Law. Then, after taking the hit for trying to uphold a law no one understood, he never used the planned attack, that McAuliffe was pro-pedophilia (a hard sell to begin with), and instead had to deal with charges he wanted to ban oral sex.
KEN AVOIDED THE OBAMACARE ISSUE TIL THE FINAL WEEK AND NEVER TIED MCAULIFFE TO THE UNPOPULAR PRESIDENT
The negative reaction to ObamaCare was such that it closed nearly all of a ten-point gap in a week with hardly any paid advertising. Had he embraced this issue early, rather than avoiding photo ops with Ted Cruz, and used it in extensive paid media throughout October, the result might have been different. New Jersey’s U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, who campaigned heavily on this issue against charismatic Newark Mayor Cory Booker, received the same 45 percent of the vote Cuccinelli did, despite having virtually no money and running in a state seven points more pro-Obama than Virginia.
KEN BLEW MONEY ON EARLY TV AND LOST HIS LEAD
Cuccinelli held a lead of as much as ten points in May, then he blew nearly $750,000 on TV ads in late May and early June and another $500,000 in August. But Ken ran out of cash in the endgame and was outspent $2.2 Million to $300,000 in the final fifteen days or 7-1. Perhaps Cuccinelli’s rise in the polls in the final week was caused by people not seeing his weak, defensive ads. (The only TV market where Cuccinelli’s vote share exceeded Romney was in Lynchburg, where he was not on the air at all during the final eight days). Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t have that $1,250,000 he spent in the spring and summer for the final weeks.
KEN WENT ON DEFENSE ON PRO-LIFE
Terry McAuliffe is a radical abortion extremist who supports it up to and including the day of delivery. That’s a fact. But you wouldn’t know it from a campaign that went on defense on cultural issues and then overreacted at the end in a state of panic. The pro-life movement has the upper hand in today’s debate and it’s time candidates stopped being afraid of saying where they stand on this critical issue for a lot of voters.
KEN IGNORED THE SLEEPER ISSUE OF COMMON CORE
Virginia is just one of five states that haven’t gone along with President Obama’s politically correct Common Core federally mandated curriculum. Yet Ken never went on the offense on this sleeper issue even though voters overwhelmingly oppose the federal government mandating local school curriculum. With growing attention on this and even opposition from many teachers unions, Ken could have used Common Core to put McAuliffe on defense and forced the Democrat to explain why he supports these controversial education policies.
KEN SPENT MORE TIME WORRYING ABOUT BILL BOLLING THAN HIS OWN SUPPORTERS
Ken should have instigated Bill Bolling to run as an Independent. While conventional wisdom was that Bolling would have taken more votes from Cuccinelli than McAuliffe, it’s pretty clear looking at the results that Bolling would have cut significantly into the McAuliffe vote, and won many high-income “moderates” who ultimately voted for McAuliffe anyway.
Now I’m going to take apart some of the myths.
THE “CUCCINELLI HAD NO MONEY” MYTH
As of October 23, the Cuccinelli campaign had raised and spent nearly $20 Million. One can complain that Cuccinelli was “outspent” but that statement rings hollow as the campaign was on TV starting in May. The problem (see above) was what they were saying in these ads and the lack of a message contained therein. By attempting to make the race a personality contest rather than an ideological contest, Cuccinelli gave up a natural advantage he attempted to reclaim in the final five days. Republicans win philosophical battles. Democrats win personality contests.
THE “REPUBLICAN PARTY SCREWED CUCCINELLI” MYTH
The Republican Governor’s Association put $8 Million into the Cuccinelli campaign and the Republican National Committee spent another $3 Million (not counted in the near $20 Million the Cuccinelli campaign expended). One could make the argument that the RNC and RGA shouldn’t have spent money in New Jersey where Chris Christie was going to win anyway, and money dried up as Ken’s campaign continued to flounder, but to say the national GOP “screwed” Ken is ridiculous. (It is correct to say that about New Jersey U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, who didn’t get a dime from national Republicans and got the same 45% of the vote Ken did.)
THE “BILL BOLLING COST US THE ELECTION” MYTH
If there’s any truth to that, it’s because the Cuccinelli campaign spent the entire summer and most of the fall acting as if Bill Bolling supporters were the only people who counted in the election. If you have a message, those sniping at you only look like sore losers. When you have no message, they look like the smart ones. And focusing on these people only makes them more important.
THE “TERRY MCAULIFFE’S ‘LIES’ DEFEATED KEN” MYTH
Campaigns are brutal. Terry McAuliffe ran some very brutal ads and lots of them. Cuccinelli’s response was to say that McAuliffe was “lying” about his record. That’s the mark of a loser. Campaigns need to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents on issues to win, not cry foul. The Cuccinelli campaign felt that they needed to draw the contrast on the “nice guy” versus the “shady businessman” and that clearly didn’t work. Can anyone point to one ad the Cuccinelli campaign aired that drew blood?
THE “SARVIS COST CUCCINELLI THE ELECTION” MYTH
Sarvis clearly took some votes from Cuccinelli and it would have been a lot more if Ken hadn’t pivoted back to ObamaCare in the final week as the Sarvis numbers took their biggest dip in high-income suburbs. Sarvis’s votes came disproportionately from younger voters so much that Cuccinelli won that group, so in that sense he hurt McAuliffe. And he also hurt McAuliffe in Northern Virginia as Obenshain and Cuccinelli received virtually the same vote in that part of the state. In other parts of Virginia, however, Sarvis seems to have taken more from Cuccinelli and overall it pretty much balanced itself out. Sarvis’s liberal views on cultural issues – as amplified in his commercials – probably if anything split the anti-Cuccinelli vote more than the anti-McAuliffe vote.
THE “CONVENTION HURT CUCCINELLI” MYTH
All of this goes back to E.W. Jackson’s nomination at the convention, but a look at Jackson’s allegedly negative statements don’t reveal anything much more controversial than things Cuccinelli said. Rather than take advantage of Bishop Jackson’s potential appeal to non-traditional Republican voters, the Cuccinelli campaign not only ignored him, but kept Jackson as far away from the candidate as possible. What did this mean? Cuccinelli won just 0.8% more of the vote than his allegedly toxic runningmate, and actually ran behind him in many areas.
THE “REPUBLICAN TICKET WAS SIMPLY TOO EXTREME” MYTH
This goes back to the Cuccinelli campaign’s decision to attack McAuliffe’s “lies” rather than fighting back on their own narrative. And it all goes back to a lack of message. Without a clear rationale behind his candidacy, a great man named Ken Cuccinelli was turned into Mitt Romney with a reactive campaign that attempted to inoculate rather than drive a message – yet he was accused of having all the same positions anyway!
LESSONS FROM 2013
CAMPAIGNS NEED TO HAVE A MESSAGE AND A RATIONALE
Candidates must be able to explain their candidacy and what makes them different in fifteen seconds or less, preferably ten seconds or less. Ken never did that.
YOU CAN’T WIN THE OTHER SIDE’S VOTE
Cuccinelli spent nearly the entire campaign trying to win back Bill Bolling supporters while ignoring the powerful ObamaCare issue that ended up motivating his base and nearly leading to victory.
CREATE A RECORD AND RUN ON IT
By not running on and spinning controversial stands he took as Virginia AG, Ken left himself open to attack on that record, because he allowed that record to be defined.
SAVE YOUR MONEY TIL THE END
I am certain the Cuccinelli campaign would have liked to have had the more than $1 Million they spent on silly positive TV ads over the summer during the final two weeks when they were outspent 7-1 on TV.
NEGATIVE ADS WORK
Nearly half of Cuccinelli’s TV advertising was spent on positive messages. More than two-thirds of McAuliffe ads were negative and those negative ads clearly drove a message so strong that they dominated debate between the candidates through much of the fall.
BE WHO YOU ARE
Cuccinelli’s positive ads made him sound like a liberal Democrat and didn’t attract any. It goes without saying that Ken did not cut into the McAuliffe vote with his ads. Ken Cuccinelli spent seven years in the State Senate and four years as Attorney General building and winning with a strong conservative message that no one saw in 2013 til the final week.
THERE IS NO EASY ANSWER
It’s easy to roll up big landslide wins when you are a powerful Governor like Chris Christie who appoints all prosecutors, judges and members of every state board, but it’s harder when you are running for a one-term Governorship with limited powers. Candidates in competitive races need to thread the needle and maximize their vote share with the most likely voters. Mitt Romney, John McCain and George Allen (twice) tried to “broaden the base” and defensively “prove” they were not “extremists.” Instead they came off as bland mush. Unfortunately Ken Cuccinelli ended up appearing to voters to be no different, with a similar outcome.
MESSAGE FOR THE FUTURE
Be bold. Stand up for what you believe. Don’t worry about what the left says. Never defend. Always attack. Keep control of the agenda. Save your money for the end.
RICK SHAFTAN is a pollster and media consultant who has worked numerous races in Virginia, including all three of Ken Cuccinelli’s State Senate elections, and around the country, including most recently the Steve Lonegan for Senate campaign in New Jersey.