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Twelve Winning (or Maybe Not) Rules for Democratic Campaign Strategists

- August 26, 2008

Political scientist extraordinaire Bob Erikson once argued that the Democrats persist in losing presidential elections because it is rational for them to do so. (See his article, “Why the Democrats Lose Presidential Elections: Toward a Theory of Optimal Loss,” PS: Political Science and Politics 22 (March, 1989), pp. 30-35). That’s the kind of sound thinking that underlies the primer on Democratic campaign strategy in 2008 that he just sent to me. I have secured his permission to reproduce it here. Thus, here, as a “Monkey Cage” exclusive, is a peek into the secret world of Democratic campaign strategy, as summarized in twelve rules.

Bob’s introduction to the twelve rules:

As an anguished Obama supporter watching his lead shrink in the polls, I asked a Democratic campaign consultant to offer reassurance. My informant said not to worry and offered the following set of twelve rules that all Democratic strategists internalize. Although these rules have been tried before and have consistently failed,my informant insists that with sufficient persistence in applying these rules, eventually a Democrat will win the White House — if not 2008, perhaps in 2012. Feeling relieved, I pass these rules on to you.

1. When the topic of foreign policy arises, change the subject. Do not talk about any aspect of foreign policy, no matter how badly the Republicans have messed it up. Voters think Republicans are strong and Democrats are weak on foreign policy, so for goodness sake never bring it up. Talking about foreign policy will only prime voters to vote Republican.

2. If a foreign policy crisis emerges and you absolutely cannot avoid addressing it, just mumble something about our need to consult our NATO allies and perhaps to takethe problem to the UN.

3. Do not address specific policy issues. Don’t you listen to talk radio? If you do, you’ll be aware that almost no one agrees with the Democrats on any policy issue. To emphasize policy positions only makes you lose votes. Keep it vague.

4. Admittedly, polls show people to be in overwhelming agreement with the Democrats on abortion (pro-choice, pro-Roe v. Wade) and gun control. So the Democrats don’t lose there. But wait! That must be why the Democrats have lost past elections. Most Americans agree with the Democrats on these issues, but the only ones who care to vote based on these issues are the pro-life and pro-gun proponents. So avoid these issues, too.

5. When Republicans attack your character, do not respond in kind. Instead, tell the people what upstanding patriots your Republican opponents are. That will shame the Republicans into no longer saying bad stuff about you. (It’s okay to threaten to respond to their negative ads, but never actually do it.)

6. Never take the offensive to challenge your Republican opponents. After all, they are popular. Attacking them will only offend voters and make them more eager to vote Republican than before.

7. When Republicans say you want to raise everybody’s taxes, do not respond! It doesn’t matter that your platform calls for taxes to be raised only for the wealthy and advocates a tax break for most Americans. Taxes are too confusing for ordinary voters to understand, and if you offer nuance voters will only become more convinced that you are eager to tax them.

8. This is not to say that Democrats don’t have issues. But choose them carefully. Target narrow parochial issues designed to win over specific states. For instance, condemn the trucking of nuclear waste to Yucca Flats. Someday that will lead to a Democrat actually carrying Nevada!

9. If your base insists that you attack your opponent, go ahead but tread carefully. Aim safely for the capillaries, not the arteries, lest your opponent strikes back with greater vigor. For instance, remind voters of an obscure scandal you can use to connect your opponent to some disgraced lobbyist by three degrees of separation.

10. Take the high road. Do not pander and tell people what the want to hear. Tell them what they need to hear. For instance, when people complain about the price of gas, do not talk about ways to ease their economic burden. Instead, expound on how wonderful life will be when we all live in central cities and ride the bus to work.

11. Do not forget the groups that brung you. Never venture a new position without considering the interests of the entrenched interests that support your party. For instance, before advocating any kind of education reforms, consider your obligation to the teachers’ unions.

12. As a Democrat, you have one issue that might work—Social Security! Polls show that this stuff is popular, so try to scare the elders by saying that the Republicans will take away their Social Security checks. With enough effort, the Democrats may someday win the senior citizen vote! Besides, advocating old-age pensions for all shows how forward looking the party can be.