Reversing the Obama wave with a detailed and disciplined campaign in Virginia

After President Barack Obama’s 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 deï¬Âcit for the Republican, and deï¬Âcits 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 sacriï¬Âcing 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. As a group, these voters tend to be largely non-ideological, moderate and focused on the candidate whose policies will allow them to remain competitive. In recent years, this group had swung to Democratic Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, a result of the Democrats’ successful outreach and positioning and the discomfort on the part of the business community with what they perceived as the GOP’s overly ideological agenda.

In the spring, McDonnell supported an effort to remove a controversial, ineffective state party chairman, sending a strong message to the business and political communities that the campaign would set a more inclusive tone and would take the steps necessary to win. During May sweeps, McDonnell was hit by the Democratic Governors Association with $3.3 million in negative ads. In response, McDonnell demonstrated the discipline that would become a hallmark of his candidacy.
He ignored the attack, and with the help of Republican Governors Association and Republican National Committee, ran ads which began deﬠning his own positive image as a results-oriented conservative who would be a “Jobs Governor.”

In June, Creigh Deeds secured the Democratic nomination, and his surprising win gave him a six-point lead in the ï¬Ârst polling of the general election matchup. A few weeks later, after much internal debate and a lengthy policy development process, McDonnell presented an innovative, detailed, 17-page plan—with 12 speciï¬Âc funding mechanisms—designed to improve Virginia’s transportation infrastructure—all without raising taxes.

The plan was met with scorn from the pro-tax Washington Post. The Deeds campaign called the plan “dead on arrival” but then failed to offer a plan of their own, bolstering McDonnell’s image as the candidate with ideas and solutions to Virginia’s most pressing problems. At the same time, McDonnell aggressively used national issues like “card check” and cap and trade to drive a wedge between the Democratic nominee and the business community. It was principally concern
over “card check,” along with the depth and quality of candidate McDonnell, which led to the surprising endorsement by BET co-founder and lifelong Democrat Sheila Johnson, an avid supporter of Gov. Kaine and President Obama.

Coming off a surprising primary victory, the Deeds campaign seemed disjointed, offering often schizophrenic, contradictory and evolving positions on a number of key issues like cap and trade. In the ï¬Ârst debate, McDonnell pressed Deeds for sup-
porting “job-killing policies” like spending, cap and trade and “card check.” He also staunchly defended his opposition to Virginia accepting $125 million in stimulus funds on the grounds that it would create an unfunded mandate for small business and hurt job-creation. Foreshadowing the next two months, Deeds said he would avoid social issues and answered post-debate questions about transportation funding by avoiding speciï¬Âcs while repeatedly saying that “all options were on the table.”

In late July and August, a period when both campaigns’ TV ads went dark, McDonnell embarked on a 25-day RV tour of the state, visiting 100 localities and releasing a dozen new jobs-related policy proposals on his “New Jobs, More Opportunities” tour. In late August, McDonnell launched one of the best-scoring ads of the campaign on his energy plans, while the RGA, with support from the RNC, initiated an independent expenditure which began the process of deï¬Âning Deeds as a high tax, big spender.

The Thesis

On the afternoon of August 28, Washington Post reporter Amy Gardner provided the campaign with a copy of McDonnell’s now-famous graduate school thesis from Regent University. Gardner had traveled to the Virginia Beach school to unearth the document—which the campaign had not seen—and was preparing a major article focused on it. She gave the campaign less than two days to respond.

Over the following 36 hours, the candidate and campaign worked in a disciplined fashion to digest and analyze the nearly 100-page paper, break down and prioritize the potential lines of attack and construct written answers from which we would not deviate for the remainder of the campaign. On Sunday, August 30, the Post ran Gardner’s story on the front page above the fold. It would be the ï¬Ârst of more than 50 stories, editorials and blog posts by the paper on McDonnell’s thesis over the next three weeks.

On Monday, we held what would be a 90-minute press conference call (not wanting to help make it a television story) with McDonnell offering his analysis of the paper, and laying out his views as they currently stood. He then answered 16 questions over the course of an hour-and-a-half, until the 47 reporters on the call had no more to ask. For fans of “The West Wing,” this was the Arnie Vinnick “stand up until you drop” press conference—on steroids.

A few key lessons helped guide our team through this feeding frenzy. First, we immediately recognized the problem and addressed it head on. As campaign chairman Ed Gillespie put it, we needed to “swallow the bug quickly,” not bit-by-bit over time. Second, we did not hide—answering questions in a 90-minute press conference the ï¬Ârst day after the story broke. Third, and most importantly, we had conï¬Âdence in the ability of the candidate to handle it. He was cool under pressure, thoughtful and detailed in his responses.

While describing how some views had changed, McDonnell never backed away from his deeply held pro-life beliefs, or from his fundamental view that strong, intact two-parent families are a bedrock of society. The effect was that after two or three days, the thesis became a process story, and no longer “news”—with the exception of The Washington Post. The Post, of course, covered the story it had created breathlessly and with editorial glee, calling McDonnell a “culture warrior” and
using all the resources and mediums of a billion-dollar enterprise to help their chosen candidate.

The Deeds campaign, like a dog going after a bone, bit down hard on the issue and refused to let go for the rest of the campaign, spending millions on ads attacking McDonnell on thesis-related issues. We recognized immediately that the issues within the thesis would be a part of the campaign until Election Day. From the standpoint of paid media, our team, led by Doug McAuliffe, sketched out a three-part response.

In the ï¬Ârst ad, McDonnell directly addressed the most potentially damaging charge—that of his views on working women—and ended the ad talking about his top priorities: “creating new jobs and more opportunities for all Virginians.” This set the tone for what would come. We would address the charges but turn our message back to those issues that voters cared about.

The initial ad was followed by a spot featuring McDonnell’s eldest daughter Jeanine, a former platoon leader in Iraq, whom communications director Tucker Martin termed “the ultimate working woman.” Jeanine was a highly effective messenger, blunting the Deeds campaign attacks that McDonnell was somehow against working women. The third ad, “Trust,” featured testimonials from a number of the women McDonnell worked with and elevated to positions of authority in the attorney general’s ofï¬Âce.

A ï¬Ânal ad, which ran in Northern Virginia, featured Democrat and businesswoman Sheila Johnson offering a powerful endorsement of McDonnell because he had “the right ideas to grow the economy.” While dealing with what we viewed as the most potentially damaging of the Deeds attacks, our campaign continued to drive a positive message on jobs and the
economy, while the RGA hammered Deeds on spending and taxes.

Meanwhile, the Deeds campaign continued to run ad after ad attacking McDonnell on the thesis—as well as dishonest attack ads on education, taxes and utility rates—attacks the disciplined McDonnell camp correctly chose to ignore.
Newspaper editorials across the state began to note the overwhelmingly negative and dishonest nature of Deeds’ campaign, calling his ads “deceitful,” “disingenuous” and in one case, “an outright lie.” Never in the annals of Virginia
political history had a campaign over-reached so far, so fast, and accumulated so many bad editorials as a result.

Our campaign used those editorials to chip away at Deeds’ credibility. And it worked. During the three weeks after Deeds
began running ads on the thesis, his image became more negative while McDonnell’s improved. By late September, McDonnell enjoyed a two-to-one favorable-unfavorable rating, while Deeds’ image had slipped to the point where more
voters viewed him unfavorably than favorably. Throughout, Deeds’ fundamental strategic error was his campaign’s failure to deﬠne his image. In focus groups and verbatim responses in our polling, aside from attacking Bob McDonnell, voters simply did not know what Deeds stood for.

Gaggle Debacle

At a crucial debate in front of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, McDonnell continued to tie Deeds to the national Democrats’ agenda: cap and trade, massive spending and debt, higher taxes—saying he supported “job-killing policies” that were bad for Virginia. Perhaps equally as important, when discussing the Obama administration, McDonnell was careful to focus on policies and not personalities, opposing measures that he said would be bad for Virginia, while praising the president’s support for charter schools and his fatherhood initiative.

Meanwhile, Deeds came out of the debate with one major, and unheeded, warning; and one self-inflicted—and devastating—mistake. As the debate progressed, Deeds continued to hammer the thesis. After the fourth salvo, a room full of Northern Virginia’s most prominent business leaders, the very individuals crucial to the success of Govs. Warner and
Kaine, responded with audible moans and even a few boos. In the face of direct evidence of his mistaken strategy, the candidate and campaign continued the line of attack in the weeks ahead.

This paled in comparison to the self-inflicted mistake Deeds made in the post-debate press gaggle, however. In the face of questioning about his statement opposing new or higher taxes to pay for roads, Deeds fumbled the issue, confusing reporters and onlookers alike, unintentionally setting in motion a string of events that left the Democrat squarely on record as supporting a billion dollars in new state taxes in the middle of a recession.

In short, Deeds had a political meltdown. He was evasive, confused and contradictory, and talked down to a female reporter. Our campaign’s tracker captured it all on video and was subsequently turned into a series of devastating TV ads by the RGA and the McDonnell campaign. Over the next six weeks, McDonnell combined his positive message on jobs and transportation with a withering assault on Deeds’ suddenly clear plan to raise taxes, and his prior support of federal policies like cap and trade. At the same time, the RGA, with support from the RNC, initiated a highly effective independent expenditure in the expensive Northern Virginia media market featuring Deeds in his own words from the post-debate press gaggle.

Intensity, Organization, Victory

While the ballot remained competitive into mid-October, throughout the campaign the most interested voters skewed heavily towards McDonnell. This was reflected on the ground, where an adeptly organized grassroots operation led by the RNC shattered all records on volunteer voter contact. The grassroots effort was bolstered by a robust and aggressive online and new media campaign. The campaign matched, and in some cases surpassed, the left on all forms of new media—the web, e-mail, text and mobile, as well as social networking including Facebook and Twitter. In short, a winning message was disseminated by working mechanics.

The message throughout was straightforward and consistent. McDonnell would be a “Jobs Governor” who would enact policies to attract and create new jobs and more opportunities in every region of the state. As a candidate, Bob McDonnell knew who he was, what he stood for and the kind of campaign he wanted to run. He would run as a results-oriented conservative—someone who never shied away from his bedrock conservative principles, but who could convert those principles into practical policies to address the everyday problems and challenges facing Virginians; someone who,
as campaign chairman Ed Gillespie put it, “ï¬Ânished the sentence,” explaining how those policies, ï¬Ârmly rooted
in conservative principles, would beneï¬Ât Virginians worried about their child’s education, rising tuition, trafï¬Âc congestion and, most importantly, their job and economic security. McDonnell accomplished this and Virginians responded.
Phil Cox served as campaign manager and transition director for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. He currently is a consultant to the Republican Governors Association, directs Governor McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC and serves as a campaign strategist to a number of Republican candidates across the country.