If Democrats want to win, here's what they must fix

The ongoing debate about what went wrong for Democrats last week, when they lost a winnable race in Georgia's 6th congressional district, is about far more than finger-pointing within the party. It's about whether the Democrats can learn from their mistakes before the coming battle for control of Congress. You can't fix a problem if you don't get the diagnosis right.

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Drew Westen

The ongoing debate about what went wrong for Democrats last week, when they lost a winnable race in Georgia's 6th congressional district, is about far more than finger-pointing within the party. It's about whether the Democrats can learn from their mistakes before the coming battle for control of Congress. You can't fix a problem if you don't get the diagnosis right.

I had a front row seat to the election, and Ossoff's campaign. I live in Georgia's 5th, right next door, and I know my neighbors a few miles away well. We share the same media market, so I saw the same ads -- hundreds of times -- as they did.

Ossoff didn't lose because this was a referendum on Donald Trump, the Democratic Party, or Nancy Pelosi. Neither candidate mentioned Trump, Ossoff never mentioned that he was a Democrat, and the low-quality ads placing cardboard figures of Pelosi next to real pictures of Osoff looked like those mild amusements at carnivals or festivals where you stick your face through a hole next to Abraham Lincoln.

Ossoff lost because that was one of the worst campaigns I've ever seen. I suspect his campaign team didn't know him very well, and if they did, it sure didn't show. The goal seemed to be to find something vaguely Republican for him to say, and to keep his head down. If the other three special elections looked anything like it, it's no wonder the Democrats lost them all.

The good news is that Democrats now have a case study for 2018 on how to lose an election with virtually unlimited funds, in the most expensive race in Congressional history.

The bad news is that they didn't get the message from 2016: that if you don't have a likable candidate who connects with people, with a message that jumps out at you, you're going to lose.

My hat goes off, and my heart goes out, to Jon Ossoff, for his dedication over many months, and for making it as close as he did. He took one for the team, but shouldn't have had to. He should be in Congress.

Campaign messaging 101

That the campaign did nothing to create a connection between the candidate and the voters, and had no clear message, is difficult to believe. This is campaign messaging 101. You start by introducing the candidate as a person, weaving together his life history and values with those of the people he wants to serve, so that it's obvious that he's the right person, with the right values, for the times. You have a pithy version of that core narrative, written in the language of the kitchen table, so people will talk about it, and which is memorable, so that it sticks.

You don't allow your opponent to attack or brand you without an answer unless her message is so inappropriate that it speaks for itself. You do your best to brand her, preferably before she can brand herself. You pre-empt attacks or concerns you know voters will have about you, like why they should vote for someone who's only 30.

You don't have to be nasty, but you do have to make voters concerned about voting for your opponent. You do not run on an issue or issues. Voters should be able to assume your positions on issues from your values. But you should have a signature issue or two, and voters should know why those issues or the broader values they reflect are so important to you, preferably by telling the story of why that is. Did you have a parent or grandparent you really admired, who taught you some lesson you've never forgotten? Did you see people suffering in some way and decide you were going to do something about it?

What matters

When you boil it down, 50 years of research suggests the same thing I've learned through 10 years of talking with, and testing out in large national samples, what matters to ordinary Americans, and what makes a message or candidate compelling. All voters are really looking for are the answers to two questions: do you understand and care about people like me, and do you share my values? It doesn't matter whether you're a "low-information voter" or someone who follows the news closely. The only difference is that those of us who are more engaged can invent better rationalizations for why we do or don't believe that if we're going to burn up a planet, we ought to pick one we don't live on.

So what was wrong with Ossoff's campaign? Having watched so many ads for so many months, I should know who Jon Ossoff is -- not from Karen Handel's amateurish attack ads, but from him. I should know his biography. I should know how his values emerged from that biography, and how that shaped what he wants to do in Congress. And if I'm a Republican, or lean that way, I should know why I should even consider voting for a Democrat.

But after all those months and all those ads, I couldn't answer a single one of those questions. I didn't have a clue who he is or where he came from. I have no idea what he's done with his life and career so far, and what he believes in and why. I don't even know why he was running for Congress. To my knowledge, he never offered that story, either from the start to pre-empt being branded, or after the campaign was in full swing -- and certainly, with a campaign with as much money as his, he could have done it with a 60-second spot. It wasn't until a couple days after the race was over that I even learned, after asking several people who didn't know either, that he actually grew up in Atlanta.

I certainly saw nothing in any ads, from him or his opponent, that would make me dislike him. But it might have been nice to have reason to like him. He had no narrative, no message, and no connection to me, and if he didn't to me, I doubt his ads created much of a connection to anyone else who didn't go to one of his events. They were impersonal. They were abstract. The one ad he ran that was effective was an attack ad, with a doctor, presumably an oncologist, talking about how Karen Handel had led an effort at a foundation to cut off funds for breast cancer screenings because of her position on abortion, and revealing that the doctor, herself, was a survivor. That was powerful.

But the campaign's goal seemed to be just to fly under the radar and hope voters wouldn't notice the "D" by Ossoff's name. Its primary theme was standard Republican fare, cutting government waste -- "because it's your tax dollars."

Republicans are better at being Republican than Democrats will ever be

Like so many Democratic candidates who wind up in the political graveyard in red or swing districts, Ossoff ran the typical "I'm almost as good as a Republican" campaign, choosing a core Republican value and being the second-best of two candidates at it. If government waste is your biggest concern, you want a member of Congress who'll caucus with the Republicans, because if you have a mole you want removed, and your dermatologist pulls out a jackhammer, you can be pretty sure he'll get it. That's how Republicans tend to cut waste.

I saw his ads about cutting waste. Yeah, I'm sure he'll be just as successful as all the other waste cutters in Washington. It isn't believable, and it isn't among the first two or three dozen things that were on voters' minds last Tuesday. Probably the most important thing that was on the minds of many in Georgia's 6th and in districts around the country, especially if they're small business owners, their employees, or anyone whose company doesn't offer health insurance, is that they finally have some security for the first time, and they don't want to lose it.

So why not run as a Democrat, who cares about a little girl named say, Emma, a six-year-old child whose leukemia is finally in remission, but whose life is on the line if Republicans, by design or by accident, cut the lifeline that saved her life in the first place?

Why not show with your words, your intonation, and your actions -- by visiting kids like Emma in what is identifiably Northside Hospital, and naming the hospital by name, because it's one of the best hospitals in the state, with affiliated doctors all over the district, and it conveys that you know that district and care about the people in it.

And why not make clear that you understand what your opponent doesn't: that this is not about abstractions. This is not about a name, either, "Obamacare" vs. "Trumpcare." This is about Emma. This is about common sense, that health care is too important to too many people to eliminate what we have in one fell swoop, on one day, and replace it immediately with something new and untested.

If you want to scrap the existing law rather than fix its major problems, then test your new plan out first in a couple of states for a couple years and see if it works. Emphasize the business model: you pilot test a new product and see if it works before you take it to market.

Now you're beginning to create a new idea in that district -- the idea of a sensible Democrat, someone who cares about making sure everyone is covered, and that premiums are affordable, while keeping an eye on the cost to taxpayers.

Now that's a good reason to vote for the guy with the "D" by his name if you're a Republican in Georgia's 6th. He cares about people like Emma, and about her mom and dad, who were desperate before and are growing desperate again. He shares your values of making sure we don't forget the "life" part of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and of protecting our children and seeing the next generation thrive. And he is already demonstrating that he's interested in solving problems using common sense and evidence.

At least until the Democratic Party rebuilds a brand for itself, that's how you begin to rebrand it, district by district.

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