Sunday, August 11, 2013

A primary for Democrats could be beneficial

Earned media from primary election could create a positive narrative

I’ve previously spoken on the idea that the Wisconsin Democratic Party doesn’t need a candidate to run against Gov. Scott Walker quite yet.

What I wrote in June -- which was just one full year after the gubernatorial recall election of 2012 -- was simple:
[T]here’s something more important that Democrats need to consider, before even picking a candidate...and that’s their message.

What do Democrats stand for? What do they want the people of Wisconsin to think of when they hear the party’s name?


Wisconsin Democrats need to hone their message. They need to point out why Walker’s plans will hurt the people overall, but at the same time explain what they’d do different.

When that message is crafted and perfected, then a candidate who espouses that message should be considered.
I stand by that sentiment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk strategy. We can talk openly about who the candidate should be, why this person is better than that person, and so forth. People should even feel free to announce their intention to win the nomination of the party if they want to.

But having to know who the candidate is right now is less important than focusing on what the candidate will stand for if selected.

The newest concern for Democrats is whether there should be a contested primary for challenging the governor. On the one hand, party members worry that a primary process may muddle the chances of replacing Scott Walker in 2014. If a candidate isn’t “known” by the time the primary election happens -- just a couple of months before the general election -- it may hurt his or her chances of getting real name recognition.

On the other hand, having the party endorse a candidate several months prior to the primary may hurt in the long run as well. Without the base having a say in the selection process, many may not turn out, opting to sit on their hands to show dissatisfaction with the party “bosses” over their limiting participation of the party faithful.

Both ideas have merits, and both ideas have their problems. Which is the best solution?

That ultimately depends on who is running. If a clear front-runner throws their hat into the primary, and it’s shown that they have the support of most Democrats, then it ought to be a non-contested primary. There’s no need to dig up dirt on someone when it’s obvious they’re going to be the party’s nominee.

That could only happen, however, if a big-name Democrat announces themselves a candidate. The only two to possibly be able to do that at this time, in my book, are Ron Kind and Russ Feingold, both who have announced they do not intend to run against Walker in 2014.

What’s much more likely is that a bunch of other candidates, who don’t necessarily have that name power but are contenders in their own right, will contest one another in order to get the coveted title of nominee in late fall of next year.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s not a messy primary process. If mud is thrown, if people’s names are soiled, it will give fodder to the Republican Party. But if candidates focus solely on political differences, without hurting the brand of the party, then it can result in some very positive outcomes.

One of those positive outcomes? The very mission that the party has to focus on in the first place: getting its message to the people. With several candidates debating the issues (if done positively), the party will end up the winner.

Candidates will talk about their differences, but they’ll also address issues on which they agree on -- and more importantly, where Scott Walker is wrong. It will also draw attention away from the Republican Party while the narrative in the media will be, “Who will be the Democratic nominee?”

The answer will be clear after the primary. What’s more, the message that the party will want to emanate will be more transparent to a citizenry who will be focused on that media narrative, rather than a narrative that puts more focus on Scott Walker.

Earned media is much harder to create when it’s a single candidate running. Think back to 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were campaigning against one another for the presidential ticket. John McCain, who had won primary challenges himself, was the clear candidate they would eventually run against.

But no one was focusing on McCain -- the media attention was on Obama and Clinton, and who the party would choose in the end. Though things got tense in the lead-up to the nomination, the ultimate winner (Obama) got much more media attention than his ideological opponent (McCain).

More people knew where Obama stood, and more people tied McCain to the failures of the Bush administration, whether he deserved it or not.

We already know who the candidate for the Republicans in the statewide gubernatorial election will be. And, with things going the way they are, the people of Wisconsin will start to take note of his failures and improper governing style over the course of the next year (Walker’s approval rating has already dipped below 50 percent).

If Democrats choose a candidate to get behind too soon, the narrative the media will focus on will be “Walker vs. Candidate X.” That narrative will be important, too, but it may be more beneficial if the narrative were “Candidate X, Y, and Z: who will the Democrats pick?” for a time before the actual election.

That narrative will create a buzz for people to discuss issues from an angle the Democrats want -- and it will give more attention to the Democrats in the waning months of the campaign. Who wouldn’t want that?

Yes, a primary campaign can be tedious, stressful, and even downright dirty. But if managed properly, if the candidates can keep their egos in line, the benefits may outweigh the problems in a big way. Walker won’t have someone to focus on specifically, and the Democrats will be getting some much-needed attention from the media.

The primary shouldn’t be seen as a problem for the left. Putting up a candidate too soon could cause much more misery than having a few candidates in mind who could all take Walker head-on.

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