The conventional wisdom after the 2012 election was that Barack Obama's campaign had mastered cutting-edge electoral strategies -- use of social media, massaging of big data, microtargeting, all that. But if yesterday's GOP blowout was the electorate doing the usual thing and punishing the president's party when things aren't going well, it was also a sign that Republicans have mastered contemporary campaigning. They understand what works right now much better than Democrats do. In particular, they understand the rhythms of contemporary news dissemination.
This New York Times article explains how Republicans kept candidates from going off message:
Little was left to chance: Republican operatives sent fake campaign trackers -- interns and staff members brandishing video cameras to record every utterance and move -- to trail their own candidates. In media training sessions, candidates were forced to sit through a reel of the most self-destructive moments of 2012, when Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock's comments on rape and pregnancy helped sink the party."But wait," you say. "Didn't Joni Ernst denounce Agenda 21 as a massive UN fascist conspiracy?" Yeah -- in 2013. And Cory Gardner rejected the personhood bill he'd supported in March of this year. Republicans understand that if an embarrassing thing wasn't said recently, to the average moderate voter it doesn't count, especially if you have to explain why the embarrassing thing is embarrassing (which is why the Agenda 21 assertion never mattered -- if liberals and moderates watched ideological TV as relentlessly as conservatives watch Fox, they'd understand this, but they don't).
... in the end, the disciplined approach worked: no Republican imploded with the kind of fatal campaign gaffe that crushed the party's hopes in the last two elections. Every establish candidate prevailed in the primaries. Republicans credited this to their rigorous training program. The fake trackers would even surprise candidates at the curb outside the airport when they flew into Washington to meet with National Republican Senatorial Committee officials, who then forced candidates to sit down and watch themselves on film.
Republicans also understand how to work the rhythms of bad news for Democrats. So much of what went wrong for President Obama in the past year consisted of problems he hadn't headed off but ultimately got a handle on. Is there an Ebola epidemic in America? No. Have we had stateside ISIS beheadings? No. Did the child refugee wave on the border eventually abate? Yes. Does the Obamacare website work? Yes. But Republicans know how to work these issues when they're front and center in people's minds. Republican burn them into America's collective brain as Obama failures. Each seeming crisis settles down, and on some level we realize that we're not all going to die, but many of us never forget the outrage and fear.
Democrat, by contrast, seem to have absolutely no ability to imprint Republicans' failures in the minds of voters. Voters utterly forgot last fall's government shutdown. Voters forgot what they hated about Rick Scott and Paul Le Page and Scott Walker. There's a way to do this in the modern media environment, and to overcome the limits of modern attention spans -- we know that because Republicans know how to do it. Democrats don't.
What Democrats know how to do is run the Obama 2012 campaign. They know, for instance, how to hammer away at women's issues -- but while Obama's focus on those issues led to some skepticism in 2012 but was ultimately successful, Mark Udall focused on them in Colorado to such an extent that his focus itself became an issue, to his detriment. If your own donors are heckling you over this, you're doing it wrong. Similarly, the relentless fundraising emails that worked for Obama in 2012 became a sad joke in 2014.
I saw a lot of soft-focus, apolitical photos of President Obama in my Twitter feed during this campaign. That worked in 2012 -- voters who are inclined to like the president but aren't particularly political probably do respond to that sort of People magazine self-promotion, and it's not as if other presidents haven't promoted themselves the same way. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Ronnie and Nancy.) But with so much fear out there, and so much disappointment at the state of the economy, it was time for the White House to put the 2012 playbook away.
That didn't happen. And here we are.