November 8, 2009
Who lost NY 23 for the GOP?By Rosslyn Smith
Having been in the position of watching my favored candidate stumble badly in an endorsement session while a more liberal Republican alternative hit all the right notes, I reserved my opinion on the goings-on in the recent Congressional race in New York's 23rd Congressional District. Now that it is over, I have concluded that while the local Republican Party leadership's endorsement of Dede Scozzafava may have been a what-in-the-world-were-they-thinking moment, I suspect that many would now be saying, "Can't they do any better than this?" had they had endorsed Doug Hoffman from the beginning. While Hoffman may have hit most of the right notes on paper on the issues of importance to nationwide conservatives, I could not discern any notable qualities in him when it came to running a political campaign. Nor did he seem to have ever studied Tip O'Neil's maxim that "All politics are local." A common refrain in comments from those in NY-23 is that Hoffman started out and remained very weak when discussing local issues.
There is an old saw in the art world that while critics love to talk about sweeping trends, when artists get together, they usually talk about where one can find the best price on canvas and brushes. The same holds true in politics. Most media pundits and bloggers tend to concentrate on the grand ideologies and dismiss the skill sets needed to win elections, including things as basic as being more likable than one's opponent. Then they are either disappointed by election results or read too much into them.
Successful politicians know that with the right skills, a candidate can paint over many ideological differences -- at least long enough to win an election. What seems to be lost in much of the major analysis of Tuesday's results by the chattering class is that Doug Hoffman has few political skills. When I read some of the comments, my conclusion is that dislike for both the current administration and members of the Washington Republican establishment has caused many people who should know better to lose perspective about the quality of their allies.
It seems to me that a great many people need to ask themselves a couple of questions before they offer any more advice about what needs to be done in 2010. For example, can they imagine any other set of circumstances in which Doug Hoffman would be their choice as the face of the conservative movement?
Like many conservatives, I found Hoffman quite sound in most aspects of ideology. Unfortunately, I was not in the least bit impressed when I saw him in action, and it wasn't just the yawning charisma lacuna. As the Anchoress put it, Hoffman looks like Barney Fife in a suit. Ann Althouse compared images of Hoffman to Bill Owens, and Owens definitely came across better as representing the confident, calm self-image of voters in a modern small town and rural constituency. Hoffman, on the other hand, tended to look more like a Hollywood caricature of the small-town nerd in the grip of some strange obsession. Some pundits tried to act as if Hoffman's odd appearance had a charm to it, but that requires a level of ironic self-awareness in a candidate that I could not detect in Hoffman.
This is not to say that one has to be exceptionally attractive to be a political candidate in the media age -- only that if one's looks are getting in the way of the message, the answer is to turn them into an asset, make fun of them, or otherwise minimize memorable but unflattering features in order to maximize the message. Thus Rudy Boschwitz overcame an unattractive visage, a slight speech impediment, and the lingering accent from his German birth to become a two-term Senator in Minnesota. He did this by cultivating a homespun, flannel-shirt persona that he carried over to politics from doing his own late-night TV commercials for the family business.
Far more recently, when Jon Corzine tried to imply that his opponent Chris Christie was unqualified for the governorship by tapping into the urban professional's prejudice against overweight individuals, Christie responded by making fun of himself and the countless voters who share his weight problem. Christie told Don Imus, "I think I am setting an example. We have to spur our economy, Don. Dunkin' Donuts, International House of Pancakes -- those people need to work, too." It wasn't quite in the same league as Ronald Reagan's retort to Walter Mondale's attempt to make age an issue in 1984, but Christie did get the focus back where it belonged: on Corzine's record in office. By contrast, what many voters remember most about the barrage of Doug Hoffman ads were his yellow teeth and goggle eyes.
It isn't easy telling anyone that his appearance is working against him. It is doubly hard when he is an earnest political candidate. Once, a rather nerdish Republican candidate for the state legislature stated that he knew some people said he looked like an undertaker. I swallowed hard and told him they were wrong. He looked like the corpse. I then carefully pointed out that given his very dark hair and pale skin, the dark suit with a white shirt he thought made him look professional washed all the color out of his face. I suggested he experiment with lighter colored suits and perhaps pale blue shirts. Surely someone who cared about Hoffman's campaign could have taken the candidate aside and firmly suggested that a trip to the dentist and new glasses might be in order.
Even more important than Hoffman's TV image, comments from people in the district say Hoffman repeatedly bungled local issues. When bloggers as diverse as Ann Althouse and Ace of Spades report contacts who conclude that Hoffman didn't address the specific concerns of local voters, you know his campaign had serious flaws. I suspect this incident before a local newspaper editorial board might have been one reason the local Republican county chairmen weren't impressed by Hoffman back in July. .
Obliviousness to local issues is usually a pretty good reason for a local political official or a newspaper to withhold an endorsement. I found the next paragraph in the Watertown Times article even more astounding:
It is one thing for a candidate to believe the issue should not be addressed at the federal level and to offer alternate solutions. It is another for him to appear not to have any knowledge at all about the issue. When I read this, my first reaction was to recall the Chicago Tribune editorial board asking U.S. Senate candidate Carol Moseley Braun questions on agricultural policy in October 1992. Not only couldn't she answer their questions, she accused them of being unfair. The impression was of a dilettante running to improve her place in the Chicago social pecking order rather than to be the senator of a major agricultural state. The incident cost Moseley Braun the Tribune's endorsement and had the Republican been a more deft campaigner, it could well have cost her the 1992 election.
My second reaction was to wonder when Dick Armey became politically tone deaf. I am pretty sure he didn't see concerns relating to the economy of the Dallas Fort Worth area as entirely parochial and beneath his office during his nine terms in Congress. With his experience, Armey should also be well aware that given the overwhelming media spin that only the federal government is capable of solving the nation's major problems, those who support limited government have to be able to argue in convincing detail why local government and private solutions are often more effective. It is hard for a candidate to offer limited government alternatives if he isn't even aware of the big government proposal to begin with.
Jobs have been a crucial political issue in upstate New York long before the current recession. Thus I would expect a candidate there to routinely come prepared to respond in detail to all related issues before Congress, the State Assembly, and even the local councils of key municipalities -- if for no other reason than to convince editorial boards and voters that their concerns are also his concerns. It speaks just as poorly of Hoffman's judgment that he did not recognize that allowing the head of a Washington-based organization like FreedomWorks to dismiss local economic infrastructure proposals as "parochial issues that would not determine the outcome of the election" might well offend the independent-minded voters often found in rural districts. Hoffman's own slogan was that he was a common-sense Reagan conservative, and common sense isn't so common anymore. Common sense certainly was absent from his campaign the day he met with the editorial board of the Watertown Daily Times. As NRO's Jim Geraghty notes,
In retrospect, it looks a little embarrassing to look back and read Dick Armey dismissing regional concerns as 'parochial' issues that would not determine the outcome of the election.
A better Conservative candidate would have been fluent in both local and national issues.
On the issues that Hoffman did discuss, the Watertown Daily Times noted:
Some of the same commentators who were slamming Democrat candidate for Virginia governor Creigh Deeds for running negative ads about his opponent while speaking in only generalities of his own plans to solve Virginia's economic and traffic problems didn't seem to mind that Hoffman used a similar campaign strategy. Unfortunately, running against Nancy Pelosi was not a winning strategy for the House Republicans in 2008 and it won't be in 2010, not unless some concrete policy alternatives are also in play. The Contract for America was quite specific about what was to happen if Republicans were elected.
Someone who worked for Hoffman wrote this comment on Pajamas Media:
No kidding. A lot had been written about the desirability of non-professional politicians, but isn't it also necessary to keep in mind the difference between being an amateur and being amateurish? I thought Hoffman came across like he was running for president of his high school debate club. It is astounding to me that Hoffman and his surrogates thought that local issues were irrelevant to their cause. The lack of specificity is especially problematic with a large section of the voting public now painfully aware that last year they didn't demand very many specifics from Barack Obama before they voted for him. The broad campaign statement is out of favor for now, perhaps doubly so for any candidate lacking experience.
Another issue lost in the finger-pointing over who lost NY-23 is that of the voter backlash during the final days of the campaign. Scozzafava's bizarre reactions to criticism and her rapid fade in the polls when the extent of her liberalism became known isn't the whole story about the endgame. In the final days of the campaign, the issue for the undecideds became not left versus right but that of local interests versus outside interference.
The Watertown Daily Times pounded Hoffman on his biggest weakness: lack of knowledge of local issues. That argument seemed to resonate with voters in Jefferson County and much of the rest of the district. Local constituent service was one of Scozzafava's strengths, and while Democrat Owens had no greater background in local issues than Hoffman, Owens deftly emphasized local responsiveness as a theme, while Hoffman fumbled the local issues repeatedly.
In a two-man race that came down to who had the most empathy for, if not knowledge of, the specific concerns of local voters, it appears that Scozzafava's was the endorsement that mattered for those who had not yet made up their minds. The late undecideds broke strongly for Owens. Her nod also helped Owens surge to a decisive margin in those areas Scozzafava had represented in Albany.
This does not mean that all those late breakers were liberals. There is always more to convincing voters that you can represent them than being in agreement on some or all the general issues. Scozzafava's strength in a three-man race was that as the only candidate who had previously held elective office, she was knowledgeable on the local issues. Combined with very high marks for basic constituent services over the years, this gave her endorsement credibility that a robo-call from a political leader outside the district lacked. Thus a significant number of undecideds trusted her when she said that Owens shared their concerns. On the other hand, Hoffman's detachment on local issues and the national attention he had received fed worries that the newcomer could end up being the Congressman from the Club for Growth and the EIB network before being the Congressman from NY-23. This perception may well have been strengthened by the Hoffman campaign's last-minute barrage of robo-calls featuring national conservative voices.
The importance of having an image of caring for local constituents cannot be over-emphasized, as it has been known to trump a lot of ideological differences. I am reminded of a friend from South Carolina who dearly loved Strom Thurmond. A self-described liberal-to-moderate, my friend disagreed with Strom on any number of issues, but her perception was that Strom always came through when a constituent needed help and that his office could move mountains for South Carolinians. That Strom cared so much about South Carolinians was enough in her mind to overcome almost any gap in ideology. Strom and his staff were genuine public servants. I've heard that the constituent who walked into the office with a request that didn't involve the national government didn't get a lesson on federalism along with the phone number of the appropriate office in the state capitol of Columbia, some county courthouse, or a private charity. The staff would make the call on the constituent's behalf because that is what a servant does: solves problems and makes life easier.
Another issue was how Hoffman spent his time and resources, especially once the race went from a three-person to a two-man race in the last days. Michael Patrick Leahy reports that Hoffman was noticeably less visible to volunteers the last weekend and had only one event scheduled for the day before the election. Scozzafava's exit caused the undecideds to jump. Hoffman may have taken a premature victory lap when a better use of time would have been to camp out in Scozzafava's stronghold, asking people for their vote now that she was out of the race. Those who think that such efforts would be fruitless probably have never experienced a runoff election. The paring of a multi-candidate field down to the final two often results in a dynamic situation and odd alliances.
Hoffman also did very little mailing, and his campaign had a three-to-one edge in the use of robo-calls. Leahy opines that the failure to make more use of direct mail was a misstep because voters had become worn out by a barrage of television advertisements and robo-calls from all three sides. TV ads can be wasteful in congressional campaigns in sprawling districts like NY-23 because you often have to buy time from stations that reach only a small part of the district in order to achieve complete coverage. While direct mail looks more expensive on the face of things, at least with direct mail it is a certainty that each household with a registered voter got the message, even if it was only to carry it from the mail box to the recycle bin.
Finally, I suspect that NY-23 is far less fiscally conservative than the likes of Roger L. Simon and Megan McArdle suspect when they counsel the GOP to de-emphasize social conservatism if they want to win north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I can't speak personally for NY-23, but I am familiar with both rural Minnesota and rural North Carolina, and the people in both places tend to be pro-guns, pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-flag, and pro-federal pork projects. The conservatism of rural America is more likely to be social than fiscal for the simple reason that people in rural areas may be land-rich but are often cash-poor. Rural counties often can't afford to spend much on infrastructure, and state governments tend to concentrate their infrastructure spending on the fast-growing suburbs.
Thus, in rural districts, federal pork-barrel spending is popular even if the attached federal government strings are not. The first political lesson I learned when I moved to the country is that the so called highway to nowhere projects city-based fiscal conservatives so frequently deride whisper enticingly to rural voters that If you build it, they will come. Indeed, a new highway is often the first step in creating a business corridor on the outskirts of a small town or a thriving seasonal recreation center in remote mountains, hills, and lakes. When is the last time one of Roger L. Simon's Hollywood friends constructed a cozy getaway where they didn't travel over federally funded roads and bridges to get there?
When I look at what 2010 might hold, I think of that traditional recipe for game pie said to begin with the admonition, First catch your hare. Political success almost always involves first identifying a good candidate. While some degree of common philosophical agreement is a prerequisite, the commonality alone does not make just anyone worthy of political support. In addition to embracing an acceptable number of conservative principles, good candidates should also be able to find a way to connect on an emotional level with the voters. They must be willing to do their homework on issues potential constituents find important and on the basics of campaigning. It is always a plus if they can adapt when the campaign takes a sudden twist. Doug Hoffman failed to do any of these.
There are a lot of people out there who are attempting to force the NY-23 results into their own political agenda. The loss rests not with the local Republican leadership, the National Republican Campaign Committee, the duplicity of Dede Scozzafava in endorsing the Democrat after the NRCC spent $670,000 on her behalf, or even those who say the loss can be blamed on a widespread backlash against Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
It particularly does not rest with the voters in NY-23 because they were misled or misinformed. For two months they were barraged by TV ads, pollsters, robo-calls, political organizers, and national media figures. Their special election was made into a battleground for those whose interests were not coterminous with the voters in the district itself. As of a week before the election, some $3.6 million had been spent by the three candidates and their surrogates. When all the numbers are reported, that should work out to better than $26 per vote cast. Indeed, as it was a special election, there isn't even the possibility that some voters came because of the Presidential or gubernatorial race and then cast an uniformed vote for Congress. To suggest that the voters did not know what was going on or were confused by New York's unique system -- in place for decades -- in which a single candidate may be listed more than once because two parties have endorsed him, is insulting to the very people that we should hope will vote for a conservative governor as well as a conservative congressman year from now. Given the saturation of coverage, those who showed up on Tuesday knew that while there may have been five lines on the ballot, it was a two-man race. They had a pretty good idea of who those two men were and what they stood for politically. Thus they had good reasons the elect the Air Force veteran and small 'c' conservative Democrat who had adeptly positioned himself as the candidate best equipped to represent the voters' interests in Washington.
The loss rests with Doug Hoffman. The polls showed that he had the momentum going into the final weekend, but in the end he could not close the sale with the voters.