California being California it will take some time before the final numbers are in but Wednesday morning’s papers all told me that Gavin Newsom prevailed in the recall election by a huge margin. Gavin executed a strategy articulated by Harry Truman in 1948 and was more crudely put by me over the course of the last two decades or so.
The name of this website came from a remark Truman made during his 1948 whistle stop tour campaign. In brief, at one point the campaign was close to broke so Truman ordered the train stopped, he got on the rear of the caboose and spoke to the assembled crowd which was predominantly press. At one point Truman got particularly fiery and a member of the press yelled, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” to which Truman responded “I don’t give ‘em Hell; I just tell the truth on them and they think they are in Hell.”
One of the biggest mistakes I felt Al Gore made in 2000 was to not attack enough. My advise to Democrats in that and almost every election since (at all kinds of levels) has been to attack, attack, attack and then attack some more.
The California recall race looked close just a few weeks ago until Newsom turned it into a binary choice between him – flaws and all – and the likely Republican who would replace him. He didn’t come up with any lies or dig up old dirt from high school days; he simply told the truth on him. It worked! It got complacent voters off the sidelines and the resulted in a huge victory.
In politics, as in sports, you like to play against the weakest possible opponent. Sometimes in both elections and ballgames there are upsets. If Team A or Team B moves on to the next round of the playoffs the impact on society is negligible. In politics if the nutcase wins there is a massive cost.
This may be truer today than in any time in recent American history. The Trump wing of the Republican Party is running nutcases. Incumbent Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma is being primaried by Trump endorsed Jackson Lahmeyer who is selling “religious exemptions” from the COVID vaccine. The conventional wisdom would be for the Democrats to hope Lahmeyer becomes the GOP nominee and then pull off an upset in 2022. The reality is that the chances of a Democrat winning statewide in Oklahoma in 2022 are not very good regardless of how zany the Republican is. I am far from a fan of Lankford’s and you will not see me backing him, but electing Lahmeyer is like going from the frying pan into the fire.
When all the numbers are in it appears Newsom will have won by better than a 60-40 margin; that is considered a blowout in American politics. In all fairness Newsom being a Democrat in California had what in a sports analogy would be called a home field advantage.
Thus far I’ve used a blue and a red state as examples. The key is what can happen in a purple state. That is where the balance of power will be determined in the Senate and in presidential races in the years to come. That is also where it is the most likely to get voters to split their tickets and/or vote for a different Party’s candidate than they usually do.
Democrats in particular suffer from an enthusiasm gap which translates to lower voter turnout. I have long held the opinion that Americans seldom vote for a candidate but they certainly vote against a candidate. If you ever see a big crows at a school board or county commissioners’ meeting it isn’t because they want to congratulate and thank the members. It is because something angered them.
Going forward Democrats need to use the strategy that proved to be a winner for Newsom: draw a contrast and pound away at it. Make it a simple binary decision. The American voter is busy and distracted. They do not have the time for complex position papers but they can understand a simple and glaring difference. If you motivate them– which often entails scaring them – they will show up. Unlike Dick Cheney in 2004, Democrats don’t have to lie to motivate. They can pull a “Harry Truman” and tell the truth on them while they pull a “Larry” and attack, attack, attack and then attack some more.
The last paragraph was the natural place to stop but I also learned a lesson in this contest when coupled with some current events. The position of Governor deserves more of my attention and expect to see that in the months to come. All the battles aren’t waged in Washington.
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