The New York Times has an article on how the Democrats are planning to attack the Tea Party this fall. It’s a classic campaign of FUD—Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The Democrats want to try to paint the Tea Partiers as a bunch of extremists nutjobs in the hopes that the voters associate Republicans with the Tea Party.
The problem with that strategy is that it doesn’t work. Barrage after barrage of ads against Sharron Angle in Nevada have only managed to put the race within the margin of error. And Angle is an extremely unpolished candidate who’s made several unforced errors early in her campaign. In Kentucky, the Democrats tried to attack Rand Paul along similar lines—and he is safely ahead. It’s not as though the Democrats are trying a new strategy—they’ve been playing the “extremist” card for this whole cycle. And where has it gotten them?
There’s an underlying reason why this strategy has and will fail: this is a referendum election. Some elections are referendums on the ruling party, others are status quo elections. In a referendum election, the electorate displays their disgust with the ruling party and is in a “throw the bums out” mood. In a status quo election, voters are happy and don’t want change from the status quo. Different strategies are effective for each.
The last referendum election we had was 2006, when the American people signaled their disgust with the state of the Republican Party. And what was the GOP strategy in 2006? Going on the attack and painting Democrats as extreme. Read this with the above NYT article and see how similar they are: it’s almost eerie.
Both the 2006-era GOP and the 2010 Democrats are making the same mistake: playing a strategy for a status quo election in a referendum election. Right now, voters are angry at the state of the country and angry at the Democratic Party. That’s showing in nearly every poll. So why are the Democrats going on the attack? Do they think that they can channel that anger towards the Republicans? Because that strategy never works. In a status quo election, you can use fear of change to get the electorate to reject the opposition’s message. But this does not work in a referendum election—voters who are angry at you are not going to be swayed by fear of the other side.
Referendum elections are like firestorms—one you’re in one, the only strategy that will save you is not to have played with matches in the first place. The Democrats are copying the failed strategy of the GOP in 2006—and for the same reasons. They don’t have a popular record to run on, so they’re hoping that they can scare voters away from giving them an electoral drubbing. But Americans may not particularly care for the Tea Party, but they really hate the state of the country. And the electorate’s disgust with the Democrats is trumping their concerns about the Tea Party. Because the Tea Party has thus far avoided wading into social issues and has kept their message targeted on fiscal restraint, the Democrats’ fear campaign just isn’t gaining traction.
That isn’t to say it will never work. There are races where such a strategy can have some effect. Harry Reid’s battle against Sharron Angle is one such race. Certainly Christine O’Donnell’s record of nutty views and numerous gaffes will ensure that she has roughly zero chance of taking Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. There may be a few House races here and there where that comes into play—but not enough to blunt GOP momentum.
The Democrats are showing desperation with this strategy, just as the GOP did in 2006. The fact that the Democrats are going after the Tea Party is not a brilliant electoral calculation, it’s a sign that they’re out of ideas. There’s nothing new about that strategy, and the Democrats have been trying it for nearly a year now. When you start seeing campaigns praying that opposition research and negative ads will work, it’s a sign of a campaign that’s scrambling to stop the bleeding. And that is exactly what the Democratic Party is trying to do right now. Perhaps they should ask the Republicans how well that strategy worked out for them four years ago.