Former Obama communications guru and Precision Strategies partner Stephanie Cutter explains why the Republicans won big in Tuesday’s midterm elections. In short: they made individual races a vote against President Obama instead of the candidate on the ballot.
PRWeek: Was there a major message or theme that helped Republicans win big?
Stephanie Cutter: Republicans had a simple message that was basically, "A vote for me is a vote against President Obama." They repeated it nonstop – to the point where it became a campaign about nothing – but the effect that it had was that it nationalized the election, whereas Democrats were trying to make this election about local issues.
Ultimately, it was that message that got more of their voters to the polls than ours.
PRW: Did the GOP have a more coherent message in this cycle?
Cutter: There are some contextual things that matter in this discussion. First, it’s a midterm election in the sixth year of this presidency. Looking at the historical wins against the party in the White House – regardless of what that party is – those presidents always lose seats, going back more than 100 years. The only three exceptions are President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the middle of passing the New Deal, President Bill Clinton after Republican overreach on impeachment, and President George W. Bush, just after the attacks on 9/11.
Number one is historical headwinds. Number two is an electoral map that heavily favored Republicans. The Democratic incumbents up for reelection were all in deep red states that the president lost to Mitt Romney by double digits, which are two big factors working against Democrats in this cycle. The third is the president’s approval rating, which is the most predictive number for the outcome of an election. The president’s approval rating is in the 40s, and it’s a solid floor for the Democratic base, but it doesn’t allow you to reach persuadable moderate voters.
By nationalizing the election about President Obama, Republicans were able to take advantage of an effective message and drive not only their base to the polls – and at a higher rate than ours – but reach some of those middle-of-the-road voters.
PRW: How does a Republican romp change the message for aspiring 2016 contenders?
Cutter: The message for both parties is that voters rejected Washington. Anybody who’s in charge is being held responsible for the direction of the country, which is true of Democrats and Republicans. Otherwise, Mitch McConnell would not have had such a tight race. He was the minority leader, [presumably to be] the majority leader, with a strong base of support in Kentucky, yet he had to pour tens of millions of dollars into this race just to get above 50%.
This was an anti-incumbent sentiment, an anti-Washington message that voters were sending. Ultimately, the president is at the top of that responsibility chain, so he bears the most responsibility. Anyone thinking about running for election in 2016 has to take that into account. You actually have to get something done over the course of the next two years. It’s not enough to just say no to the president. Republicans have to figure out how to have a proactive agenda that reaches toward the middle and brokers compromise.
Anyone thinking of running for higher office needs to think about how they can speak to every corner of this country. It’s not just about winning a primary, which is always the mistake Republicans make. It’s not just about appeasing the right wing; it’s thinking about how to speak to a general-election electorate, made up of women, young Americans, Hispanic- and African-Americans – a broad, diverse coalition. Presidential years are always more diverse in turnout than midterm elections are, and Republicans need to figure out how to take advantage of that or they won’t win the presidency. That was the mistake they made in 2012 and the mistake they made in 2008.
[Someone like] Ted Cruz, [is] already starting on the wrong path by saying he wants to investigate and repeal some of the president’s policies. Rand Paul needs to put some meat on the bone. Instead of being a constant contrarian about what’s happening in Washington, he needs to lay out a proactive agenda.
Secretary Clinton, who needs to lay out her vision for the future. She obviously has a strong record to run on, but elections are always about the future – where does she want to take the country in the future? Those are just basic tenants of putting together a 2016 campaign.
PRW: What’s the next move for the Democrats?
Cutter: They need to coalesce around a stronger economic message. There’s a strong record to run on and be proud of in terms of what Democrats collectively have done to turn the economy around. The economy is growing at the fastest pace since the 1990s, creating more jobs since the 1990s, and we’ve cut the deficit in half. These are things that matter to voters, and being able to talk about not just what we’ve accomplished together but where we want to take the economy is very important to Democrats, [and] that’s the number one issue for any voter.
2016 has the potential to be a strong year for Democrats. The map is different, there are more Republicans playing defense than Democrats in Senate races, and it’s a presidential year, which means that the electorate becomes incredibly more diverse, which benefits Democrats.
PRW: Should the president have clearly admitted defeat on Wednesday at the risk of upsetting staffers?
Cutter: The president took responsibility, and that's undoubtedly what the American people wanted to hear most.