Magazine article Politics Magazine

The McDonnell Model: Reversing the Obama Wave with a Detailed and Disciplined Campaign in Virginia

Magazine article Politics Magazine

The McDonnell Model: Reversing the Obama Wave with a Detailed and Disciplined Campaign in Virginia

Article excerpt

After President Barack Obamas impressive 7-point victory in Virginia in 2008, many observers placed Virginia squarely in the purple or even blue state category. Only 12 months later all that changed.

In every respect, Gov. Bob McDonnell's victory on November 3 represented a stunning turnaround.

The Republican received the most votes of any candidate for governor in the history of the state, carried 9 of 11 congressional districts and the vote-rich, growing, diverse swing suburban counties of Prince William (59 percent), Loudoun (61 percent), and Democratic-leaning Fairfax (51 percent), affecting a stunning 25-point turnaround from 2008.

Perhaps most impressive was McDonnell's dominance among independents with a nearly two-to-one advantage.

In focusing on the results at the ballot box in November 2009, it is helpful to understand the political and issue environment we faced in November 2008, and the key assumptions made in that context.

First, the campaign understood that the electorate in 2009 would be vastly different than that of 2008. Our 45 to 50 percent turnout model was a far cry from the 75 percent of voters who turned out in 2008. The 2009 electorate would be older and dominated by repeat voters.

Second, in every region and among every demographic and ideological group, jobs and the economy would be the dominant issue throughout the campaign. In a November 22, 2008 survey by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, jobs and the economy ranked as the most important issue with 48 percent of the electorate. Eleven months later, in October of 2009, it remained by far the number one issue.

Third, we faced a severely damaged GOP brand, with the generic ballot for governor showing a double-digit deficit for the Republican, and deficits on the major issues of jobs, education and transportation. Bob McDonnell would need his own distinct image if he was to win.

Fourth, we understood early on that independents in 10 predominately suburban counties along the I-95 and I-64 corridors would decide the election.

Finally, we would not be operating in a vacuum. National issues, Congress and the Obama administration would have an impact--and the campaign had to be agile enough to adapt to a changing national environment.

Bob's 4 Jobs and Solid as a ROC

Thanks to the leadership of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, whose decision to run for reelection avoided a potentially costly and fractious nomination contest, we were able to build a campaign that aggressively reached out to independents without sacrificing our base.

Early on, candidate McDonnell decided he would run as something he had always been--a "Results-Oriented Conservative" (which he dubbed a "ROC").

He was unabashedly pro-life, pro-family, anti-tax and pro-Second Amendment. But while holding true to his conservative principles, he had a laser-like focus on solving problems and getting results on the issues voters care about--jobs, the economy, spending, transportation and education.

From the start, the campaign sought to own the jobs issue--mentioning the word 23 times in the campaign kickoff speech in March--with campaign chairman Ed Gillespie boiling down the campaign into a memorable bumper sticker phrase: "Bob's 4 Jobs."

This marketing was bolstered by a campaign that was heavily issue-driven, presenting detailed plans, new ideas and positive solutions on 27 distinct policy areas. Regardless of the issue, every single idea was focused on and communicated through the lens of how to bring new jobs and more opportunities to every corner of the commonwealth.

The campaign took on the characteristics of the candidate: focused, disciplined and serious, yet upbeat and overwhelmingly positive.

Detailed and Disciplined

Throughout the spring and summer, the campaign waged a largely below-the-radar yet effective campaign for one of the state's critical swing groups: Virginia's business community. …

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