Saturday, November 8, 2014

You don't sell Big Macs by being anti-Whopper -- or, how Burke lost to Walker

Messaging (too much of it negative) was a big problem this election year

Scott Walker shouldn't have won reelection. On the main issues, more Wisconsinites supported his opponent's policies over his own:
A majority of Wisconsin citizens support raising the minimum wage. Walker does not.

A majority support accepting federal Medicaid funds to expand BadgerCare. Walker said no to that.

Most Wisconsinites want to increase funding to public schools. Walker cut funding and gave taxpayer dollars to private schools.
So why did Mary Burke lose? The Walker campaign made Burke into a monster. They successfully convinced a majority in the state that she would be a terrible leader, through unsubstantiated rumors and innuendos.

Burke did her best to combat that characterization, but it wasn't enough. The conversation, no matter how hard she tried, couldn't be steered a different way.

That wasn't the only problem, however. The messaging in favor of Burke for governor consisted mainly of talk about how Walker was terrible. Yes, Burke did her best to promote herself as a good option. But for the most part, she was presented as an "anyone but Walker" candidate.

This isn't how advertising, political or otherwise, works. No one goes to McDonald's and buys a Big Mac because they're anti-Whopper. Similarly, independents didn't vote for Burke because she was anti-Walker.

According to exit polls more than a quarter of the electorate were independents. That amounts to around 650,000 voters. The exit polls also show that 43 percent of independents voted for Burke while Walker received about 54 percent of their votes. If you flip those numbers, with Burke getting 54 percent and Walker 43 percent, the race would have been much closer -- add in a stronger turnout for Burke, and we might have seen some different results.

The plan by Democrats (and by all appearances, the ONLY plan) was for Burke to have a strong turnout in order to win. Her numbers weren't hugely different than those from the previous two elections against Walker, however, and the obvious reason is that Burke was the same candidate as Tom Barrett was in 2012.

OK, that's not entirely true. Burke and Barrett are two different people, and Burke would have brought a different governing style to Madison than Barrett would have. But to the average voter, Burke and Barrett appear to be the same candidate. In the recall Barrett was all about "not being Walker." In this election Burke, too, was all about "not being Walker."

That's good enough for a sizable number of people -- but for a huge chunk of voters, especially independents, it wasn't. They needed to know what she would have put in the next budget, how she would create jobs, and why (most of all) she would make a great governor -- not just a better one.

I'll be the first to admit that I've written more "anti-Walker" stuff on this very blog than "pro-Burke" items. But that's what I'm supposed to do -- I'm a blogger, I'm supposed to complain. For Walker, talk radio provided that same purpose, going after Burke in negative ways throughout the campaign. That allowed Walker to promote himself, even if he was lying while doing so.

Burke was right to point out Walker's flaws from time to time, but it shouldn't have been the campaign's main talking point. Burke was too ambiguous about how she'd run the state. Ambiguity can work in elections -- FDR didn't have a solid platform, and had no idea what the "New Deal" would look like when he ran for president in 1932. But ambiguity only works when there's a call for change by the electorate, not the candidate.

There wasn't a call for change from Wisconsin voters. And without a clearer explanation from Burke and Democrats on why she should be governor, the election was lost from the get-go. 


One final thought before I end this rant: The Democratic Party of Wisconsin didn't do much in terms of changing the discourse in this election. While the Burke campaign and the DPW are responsible for their own shortfalls, we should recognize that the party dropped the ball big time, in terms of both turnout and messaging in this election. It wasn't just the governor's race: the State Senate is still in Republican's hands. Heck, Democrats even lost a seat this year when there was a prime opportunity to take back that chamber.

How much responsibility the DPW will ultimately have to accept for this dismal election year is up for debate. I'm not one to call for pitchforks and torches, but this should be a major wake up call to leadership in the party that things need to change, and change fast, if we're ever going to fix this state.

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