We’re playing a little bit of catch-up in providing our analysis of the various different outcomes from Tuesday’s Primary. Spurred on by a good Politico story today from David Catanese, here’s our thoughts on how and why Sen. Michael Bennet defeated Andrew Romanoff in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary…
In his Politico story, Catanese lays out a couple of major reasons why Bennet beat Romanoff: 1) Fundraising, 2) Fundamentals, 3) Romanoff’s messaging, 4) President Obama’s support, and, which Catanese writes was most important, 5) The lack of policy differences between Bennet and Romanoff. These are all strong arguments, and we agree with all of them. But here’s what we think made the difference, in order of importance:
1. The Fundamentals of Ballot Chasing
In an election that saw record turnout, due in no small part to the mostly all-mail ballot voting, the core difference was Bennet’s superior ground operation. Because this race seemed to be coming down to the wire in the last week, it’s easy to forget that it was not all that close in the end; Bennet won by an 8-point margin, with a difference of more than 28,000 votes separating the candidates.
Some of the Bennet advantage here came down to fundraising, because his campaign was able to spend more money on staff without having to cut back on TV time. Both campaigns had a lot of volunteer help, but many of Romanoff’s top field organizers were largely volunteers, because Romanoff needed every penny he could save for television. But whatever the reason, Bennet’s camp had a stronger top-down ballot chase organization, as Politico notes:
“Frankly, it’s just the fundamentals. People help support what they help to create. We brought people in on the ground level and gave them ownership and accountability. People want to meet hard goals and they will because it feels good to meet them,” said a Bennet aide, referring to the 500,000 attempted calls staffers made between July 19 and Aug. 10…
…Romanoff did not produce the margin he needed out of his base in Denver County, where he only bested Bennet by six percentage points.
“Romanoff needed to win Pueblo and Denver County by really, really large margins,” observed Mike Stratton, a longtime Democratic strategist who supported Bennet and directed the campaigns of former Sens. Ken Salazar and Gary Hart.
By last Wednesday, about two-thirds of Democratic ballots had already been cast. Those first 200,000 Democratic voters equaled the number of voters who cast ballots in the entire 2008 Democratic Primary (which did not have a statewide Primary contest), which meant that the last 140-some thousand votes were probably being cast by (mostly) new voters. Bennet’s campaign identified their supporters and turned them out to vote in better numbers than Romanoff, which helped them overcome a late negative story from The New York Times.
Romanoff had been in the race for three solid months before he came out with even a small semblance of a message. It wasn’t until late December/early January that he really started pushing his “No PAC Money” message, and it wasn’t a strong-enough issue on its own to win him the election. A “no PAC money” pledge should be a secondary message – not the basis of an entire campaign – because it’s more of an inside baseball approach; the average Primary voter is not generally more informed than the average General Election voter, most of whom probably have no idea what “PAC” even stands for.
As Politico writes:
In the closing two weeks of the campaign, Romanoff appeared to be gaining some ground with his fusillade of attacks, targeting Bennet’s campaign contributions, business dealings and record as Denver school superintendent. But – to the Bennet campaign’s surprise and relief – he never pivoted to a positive message, which left late-deciding voters and fence sitters with a bitter taste…
…But the biggest factor in Romanoff’s failure to gain more ground was that despite the acrimonious back-and-forth between him and Bennet, the policy differences between them never seemed to be substantial.
It’s a fundamental rule of politics that in any campaign against an incumbent, you must both “make the case to fire” and “make the case to hire.” Romanoff never really completed either argument; he came the closest to making the “case to fire” argument, but he certainly never fully made the case why he was a better choice than Bennet. It was a recurring question that came up time and time again in the race, a question which Romanoff never had a good answer for: “What would you do differently?”
To this end, Romanoff also failed at promoting himself in a positive light. Even if his commercials convinced you that Bennet was a bad choice, they never fully explained why Romanoff was a good choice instead. The 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush is a good example of doing this strategically; in late September and early October, Bush’s ads were all about how John Kerry was a terrible candidate. But in the last 2-3 weeks of the campaign, the tone shifted into positive ads about how Bush was the kind of guy you could have a beer with. Romanoff never made that shift, and it cost him.
And finally, where messaging is concerned, Romanoff went one step too far in the negative campaigning. His “Greed” ad that accused Bennet of “looting companies and forcing them into bankruptcy” was widely condemned, and it absolutely backfired. The over-the-top rhetoric in the ad made Romanoff look like a caricature of the same sleazy politician who will say anything to win – an image that was in sharp contrast to what he had tried to portray for months. It’s always a bad sign when the discussion is more about whether your ad is unfairly negative than it is about the message you were trying to convey.
3. Romanoff Got Mired In Too Many Details
The much-discussed New York Times article that was critical of Bennet’s financial decisions while he was Superintendent of Denver Public Schools is a prime example of this. There’s no question that the story was bad for Bennet, and there’s also no question that the timing of it wasn’t ideal; by the time the article ran late last week, there wasn’t enough time left for Romanoff to show it to voters. But even if that story had hit a week or two earlier, it’s hard to say what it would have done because it was just too complicated for the average voter to understand. Financial derivatives are not exactly the best fodder for a negative ad.
But this wasn’t the only example of Romanoff getting stuck in the details. We still remember his campaign statement on the re-election of Omar al-Bashir as President of Sudan because it was typical Romanoff: Too much policy, not enough politics. While Bennet was in the middle of discussions on financial, health care and energy reform in the Senate, Romanoff was putting out statements on his position on the President of a country that half of voters probably never even heard of before.
And then there was the long, drawn-out and unsuccessful attack on Bennet for taking money from Westwood College that was made to look like a bribe by Romanoff’s campaign. In the end, it wasn’t even clear what vote we were supposed to be angry about, and Westwood College even said that Bennet didn’t vote the way they wanted anyway.
Romanoff also seemed unable to properly manage his time and efforts. For example, he wrote a long Op-Ed disputing a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank in which he did a point-by-point rebuttal. That’s great if you’re on the debate team, but you don’t have time to respond to every single critic when you are a U.S. Senate candidate.
Bennet has proved to be a prolific fundraiser, and his huge cash advantage meant that he didn’t have to make the same difficult choices that Romanoff had to make. As we wrote above, Romanoff didn’t have the luxury of being able to fund a full staff and a significant television buy, and that left him at a huge disadvantage when it came to the ballot chase.
Romanoff’s lack of fundraising also kept his challenge largely off the national radar, because every time you looked at Colorado’s quarterly reports, you saw a huge disparity between the two candidates. Raising money is an important way to prove to other big donors that you are worth a check from them because you really might be able to win. Romanoff needed that kind of momentum much earlier in the campaign; when it finally came in the last few weeks, it was too little, too late.
Once the ballots were being counted, the things that killed the Romanoff campaign were the same things that had doomed it from the start. He never had a real reason for why he would be different than Bennet, he was never able to raise much money, and both of those problems combined to prevent him from putting a complete campaign together.
As for Bennet, while he probably should have done more to attack Romanoff early and derail any potential momentum later, his campaign played it by the books; they did what they needed to do, and they did it well.