Commentary

New Faces, Familiar Campaigns

By Patrick Basham
November 8, 2001
The winning gubernatorial campaigns of Virginia and New Jersey Democrats, in tandem with a Republican upset in New York City, demonstrate two lessons that confirm the relevance of pre-September 11 electioneering to today’s politics.

Lesson One. Clintonism remains a potent political strategy.

Bill Clinton is not in the White House but his electoral legacy dominates the political landscape. The winners of all three major races adopted significant elements of Clinton’s now-famous triangulation strategy whereby a candidate splits the policy differences between liberals and conservatives to gain the support of moderate voters.

In that vein, both the Virginia and New Jersey results are a vindication of Democratic National Committee Chairman (and former Clinton fundraiser) Terry McAuliffe’s strategy to outspend Republican opponents on advertising (both campaigns employed the same media consultant), to run rhetorically centrist campaigns that soft-pedaled their candidates’ liberalism, and to emphasize their managerial skills while they attacked their conservative opponents as “extremists.”

A year ago, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by eights points in conservative Virginia. So Democrat Mark Warner, who lost running as a liberal in a 1996 Senate race, campaigned as a pragmatic, nonpartisan, consensus builder. Now running as a New Democrat, he bridged the partisan and ideological divide by abandoning liberal positions and staking out a variety of moderate-to-conservative positions.

On taxes, Warner opposed a tax increase unless passed by referendum and supported outgoing GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore’s car tax repeal campaign. Warner’s commercials described him as a “fiscal conservative.” On abortion, he supported parental notification. He favored welfare reform, gun rights, and the death penalty to eliminate the GOP’s partisan advantages on these issues. Warner embraced rural Virginia values, even calling himself a “Virginia conservative.” The strategy worked. Warner beat GOP candidate Mark Earley by five points despite the GOP gaining state legislative seats.

The Clintonite candidate in New Jersey had fewer chameleon-like changes to undergo. After all, the socially liberal, fiscally moderate, suburban Democratic-leaning state was carried by Gore by 16 points. Therefore, in the race to succeed acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, Democrat James McGreevey, the mayor of Woodbridge, could support 65 new spending programs, although as a past supporter of tax increases he was instructed to convert to a “no new taxes” stance for this campaign.

McGreevey defeated GOP candidate Bret Schundler by 14 points largely through his astute courtship of moderate independent and swing voters. Among these suburban soccer moms, the Democrat stressed abortion, gun control, and public education to tar Schundler’s pro-life, pro-gun rights, and pro-education tax credit positions as “extremist.”

In liberal New York City, Michael Bloomberg’s victory is the first time a Republican candidate has succeeded a Republican mayor. Given the Democrats’ massive 5-to-1 registration edge, one may surmise that an ideological sea-change has occurred. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The contest between Bloomberg and Public Advocate Mark Green was one in which the policy differences were relatively small. Both are self-described liberals. Until last year, when Bloomberg changed his registration to avoid a protracted primary fight, both were life-long Democrats.

For his entire 20-year political career, Green was a big government liberal. But seeking to replace popular outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Green moderated his liberal views, transforming himself from the anti-Giuliani to an allegedly tough-on-crime, experienced pair of hands. But Bloomberg succeeded in out-Clintoning his opponent. The billionaire founder of Bloomberg LP advertised himself as a pragmatist, not an ideologue; as his advertising tag line put it, “A leader. Not a politician.” To his credit, Bloomberg opposed a tax increase to pay for economic reconstruction, arguing that the private sector, not government aid, will determine the city’s recovery.

Lesson Two. Political advertising, especially the negative kind, still works.

It may be the scourge of editorial writers and political scientists but negative advertising was neither abandoned in the wake of the terrorist attacks nor did it fail to influence voters.

For much of the year, these stealth-like, below-the-radar-campaigns failed to generate media interest due to the focus on terrorism, anthrax, Michael Jordan, and the baseball playoffs. As a result, the advertising campaigns were especially important due to the paucity of media coverage of state and local races.

In Virginia, Warner outspent Earley 2 to 1. Warner could afford to advertise on TV much earlier and much heavier than Earley, building a healthy lead going into the final weeks. Although Warner’s extensive advertising was largely positive, his rapid, negative response to Earley’s initially effective attacks on the tax issue probably sealed his victory.

In New York, the campaign was strikingly negative, including explicit charges of sexual harassment. Bloomberg overcame a 40-point deficit in a couple of months primarily through a saturation advertising and direct mail campaign funded entirely by himself. At a cost of $50 million (a record for a mayoralty contest), the Bloomberg campaign massively outspent the opposition. In tandem with a beneficial Giuliani endorsement 10 days prior to Election Day, Bloomberg’s negative advertising gradually eroded Green’s lead, allowing Bloomberg to secure a come-from-behind, three-point victory.

Overall, the direct impact of Sept. 11 on yesterday’s voting was negligible. With the exception of Giuliani’s endorsement of Bloomberg, other politicians ’ attempts to wrap themselves either in the flag or the endorsement of Bush or Giuliani or respective firefighter and police organizations fell electorally flat.

The expected rush by voters to the safe harbor of political experience did not materialize. In fact, political experience appeared to be a net vote loser. Both Warner and Bloomberg were self-described “outsiders,” anti-establishment businessmen running against “politics as usual.” Ironically, yesterday’s voting confirms that, despite the new faces, our new electoral politics exhibits the same characteristics as the old.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.