Go Negative. Spend Big. Win

By Begala, Paul | Newsweek, June 18, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Go Negative. Spend Big. Win


Begala, Paul, Newsweek


Byline: Paul Begala

What Scott Walker can teach Obama.

A controversial incumbent hangs on and retains his job despite fierce opposition in a bad economy. Sounds like a hopeful scenario for the Obama campaign, right? Instead it was Republican Scott Walker's impressive victory in Wisconsin. If President Obama is smart--and he is nothing if not that--he will go to school on Walker. Here are some lessons he has probably already absorbed.

Money Matters Most. As the great political strategist Lyle Lovett sang, "No finance, no romance." They won't fall in love with you if they don't hear your message. And that means M-O-N-E-Y. Walker's campaign raised an astonishing $30.5 million. The campaign of his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett? Just $3.9 million. Outside groups then compounded the asymmetry, pouring tens of millions into Wisconsin, the vast majority of it going to the pro-Walker side. You cannot get outspent by that kind of margin and win, period.

Ground War Can't Counter Air Superiority. It has become fashionable in progressive circles for activists and donors to delude themselves into thinking that a tidal wave of advertising can be answered by an army of grassroots organizers. It can't. Sure, person-to-person campaigning is necessary--but it is not sufficient. Without a competitive media campaign, even the best grassroots organization will fail. (Full disclosure: I am an adviser to Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, which focuses on advertising.)

The pro-Walker forces got the point. They fought with everything they had. They took the fight to Barrett over the airwaves--and that's where they won. One labor source active in the Wisconsin effort summed it up this way: "Our field effort was unprecedented and, amazingly, [we] increased union turnout from a presidential election year, which is pretty much impossible. But if we aren't backed up, we can't deliver the game by ourselves."

The Base Ain't Enough. Wisconsin hasn't gone for a Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan. And yet even with remarkably high turnout from progressives, exit polls showed that just 21 percent of Badgers consider themselves liberal, while 36 percent are conservative. There's more of them than there are of us--so in order to remain president, Barack Obama has to capture the majority of independents. That means a base-only strategy cannot suffice.

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