Politics & Policy

South Dakota Heats Up

The tried-and-tested may soon be bested.

This week a poll of 800 voters conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling for Sioux Falls Argus Leader/KELO-Land television once again indicated that the high-profile South Dakota race will be a squeaker. Senator Tom Daschle is ahead of former Congressman John Thune 49 percent to 47 percent. Another independent poll in April conducted by the Rapid City Journal and other news outlets showed Daschle in the lead 49 percent to 43 percent. Daschle’s favorability rating has actually slipped several points in recent months.

#ad#The news that the race is tightening comes as a hammer blow to the Daschle campaign. They had been expecting to widen their lead after spending close to $8 million on a barrage of television, radio, and newspaper ads, in addition to tens of thousands of costly mailers to individual voters. What’s doubly damning about Daschle’s inability to move his numbers is that the Thune campaign has spent only about $500,000, and has not run a single ad.

The Daschle campaign has the “French army problem”: They’re fighting the last war. In past campaigns, Daschle has adhered to a simple model, but it has become outdated and unworkable, and the unwillingness of the Daschle campaign to deviate from that model has led to some fundamental miscalculations.

In Daschle’s early campaigns, for example, which coincided with rise of Reaganism, he ran as a “non-partisan” politician and staked out conservative positions. Daschle didn’t openly identify himself as a Democrat, ran localized “door-to-door”campaigns, and emphasized personality and niceness instead of issues. To the extent that he embraced the latter, he opposed abortion, touted a balanced-budget amendment, and supported the Reagan tax cuts. He also focused heavily on agricultural issues, especially during the sad days of the 1980s farm depression.

Daschle’s image-maker was, and still is, Karl Struble, who started his work as a Democratic operative for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and focused much of his attention on grass-roots organizing and image-shaping. Struble learned from Democratic mistakes and from the Reagan campaign: “Democrats have been hung up with the details of a subject, instead of the overriding feelings the electorate has.” In 1985, Congressional Quarterly reported that in Daschle’s 1984 House reelection effort, “Struble tested the ‘feel good’ approach with a series of ads built around the theme of ‘Why I Love South Dakota.’ His current work for Daschle picks up where those left off. ‘It’s almost impossible to see an issue or an accomplishment in the first few ads we put together,’ says Struble.”

In subsequent campaigns, Struble continued to emphasize feelings over issues. A Campaigns and Elections article from 1992 explained: “Karl Struble, a Democratic consultant, points out that ‘most persuadable voters are not issue voters. They use issues…as validators to draw a picture of the candidate’s character, and they vote based on the candidate’s character (i.e., cares about people like me, honest, effective, etc.).’” The article added that “great ads are different. They come at us from an unexpected slant. Karl Struble once did an ad in which he needed to convey the fact that Tom Daschle was one frugal SOB. He could have just said: ‘Tom is a fiscal conservative.’ Instead, he showed Daschle driving around Washington in his old, smoke-belching Pontiac. No BMW for Daschle; he was an ordinary guy.”

But this tried-and-tested Daschle/Struble model has broken down. Daschle’s new and widely publicized mansion in Washington has eclipsed his dilapidated Pontiac image. His wife’s lucrative lobbying of Congress and his massive fundraising apparatus, which rivals the Clintons’ for insatiability, also overshadows his old small-town populist routine. Also, unlike in the old days when he didn’t mention he was a Democrat, Daschle is now the titular head of the Democratic party and in charge of using arcane Senate rules to stall Republican legislation. His high-profile snippiness with President Bush and Senator Frist has ended his ability to run as a “non-partisan” do-gooder.

Daschle’s problem is reflected in the stunningly ineffective Struble ads, which started in July of 2003 with a predictable ad promoting ethanol. The problem, of course, is that a Democratic filibuster killed the ethanol bill last fall and Daschle, as widely reported, did nothing to stop it. Struble, who believes it is a mistake to stop running ads once they have started, has continued the media barrage ever since, misreading one of the key lessons of the 2002 Senate race. Deceived by the nasty 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary, the Daschle campaign concluded that voters despised negative ads. Instead, many believe that voters despise lots of ads too early, which is precisely why Daschle’s media assault may be having blowback effects. Thune, who entered the 2002 race and started running ads in October 2001, concluded the opposite–voters don’t like long campaigns and constant ads. For the 2004 race, therefore, Thune didn’t announce his decision to run until January 2004 and has held off on ads. At meetings, South Dakotans often thank him for sparing them from a prolonged ad-blitz.

Unlike previous campaigns, Daschle will be forced to contend with divisive issues in 2004. In addition to taking positions when obstructing the Republican agenda in the Senate, the Presidential race in a closely divided nation, which highlights positions taken by Senator Kerry which are similar to Daschle’s, will underscore issue differences. Struble won’t be able to hide from issues this election. Election-year obligations will also emphasize Daschle’s partisan colors, such as his stumping this week, with Senator Clinton, for Sen. Chuck Schumer’s reelection effort.

The last Senate leader to lose his reelection bid was Majority Leader Ernest McFarland (D., Ariz.) in the 1952 election. McFarland had a positive image in Arizona, but he failed to adjust his campaign techniques to a new political dynamic. A recent book about McFarland makes much of his “antiquated campaign tactics and organization” and his adherence to a campaign model that wasn’t working. McFarland was also hurt by broader, national issues and the unpopularity of Democrats nationally, especially President Truman. McFarland lost to a dynamic, 43-year-old businessman from Phoenix named Barry Goldwater. John Thune, for the record, recently turned 43.

The Daschle campaign appears wedded to their well-worn model and will probably try to grit it out. Even though the message is no longer plausible, they have few other options. Word has it, however, that Struble decided this week to pull all his Daschle ads, breaking his long-standing of rule of not leaving the airwaves once a candidate has started running ads. While their options are limited, at least the Daschle camp realizes what they have been doing is failing.

Jon Lauck is a professor of history at South Dakota State University and is blogging about the South Dakota Senate race at www.daschlelevthune.com

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