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I Sure Hope Petts Is Finished as Democratic Pollster

by: Elaine in Roanoke

Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 12:22:55 PM EST

( - promoted by KathyinBlacksburg)

Jonathan Martin of Politico has a story, dateline November 7, which explains in part how the Deeds gubernatorial campaign became such a train wreck. While I realize that it is quite painful for us to take that campaign apart and try to analyze its mistakes, the process is absolutely necessary in order to avoid a repeat.

In June, right after Creigh Deeds had come from behind to defeat Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe, his campaign went into hibernation to replenish funds and set up a staff for the general campaign against Bob McDonnell. Deeds turned to pollster David Petts for advice on the upcoming contest.

What was Petts' advice, given in a detailed memo? Go negative on the Republican nominee, capitalize on Deeds' assumed natural advantage with independents, and be wary of two fellow Democrats, incumbent Gov. Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama. According to Politico, which obtained a copy of the memo, Petts laid out his strategy "in cool, confident language."

Those of us trying to work at the grassroots know full well that the advice became the operative plan for the Deeds campaign. Deeds followed many of the recommendations that Petts laid out at the end of the 24-page strategy document.

The 17-point loss to Republican Bob McDonnell was among the worst losses in a gubernatorial election in nearly a half-century. A result of that, as Politico notes, is that the campaign is destined to become a textbook example of how not to conduct a campaign.

Elaine in Roanoke :: I Sure Hope Petts Is Finished as Democratic Pollster
It became more and more obvious that Deeds' negative harping on McDonnell's 1989 thesis was not very effective and damaged him among independents. It is my opinion that the thesis would have been a death knell for McDonnell if it had been uncovered in 2005; however, after McDonnell had served for four years as attorney general without attempting to impose theocratic beliefs on that office, his counter-argument of "that was then, this is now" resonated with voters.

McDonnell's incessant ads with women who had worked in his office in Richmond and with his daughters - one an Iraq War veteran - made the Deeds attacks on the thesis increasingly appear mean-spirited and contributed to a feeling among many independent voters that Creigh Deeds had no positive plan for the state.

Politico called Creigh Deeds' distancing himself from President Obama a "clumsy, toe-stubbing dance around Obama." I agree with the observation that his performance helped depress Democratic turnout, especially among the minority community.

When contacted by Politico, Petts dismissed much of what his memo said as "dated" and noted that the Deeds campaign made strategic shifts in the months that followed. (Yeah, after months of following his awful advice.)

"Indeed, what is notable about Petts's memo is not [just] that it is an especially bad example of campaign advice but that it is entirely characteristic of the genre," Politico's Martin continues.

Written casually but with an air of absolute certainty and filled with the jargon consultants throw around, it is similar to "thousands of such memos that will be churned out over the next twelve months by the political-advice industry."

These consultants pull down big reimbursements by selling the bogus idea that politics is some sort of science, and they are the best practitioners of that "science." That falsehood is more reassuring than the truth: "Voters are fickle, the factors that motivate them are ephemeral, political operatives are often winging it, and even the shrewdest advice...can't compensate for a weak candidate running in a harsh environment."

For the life of me, I couldn't understand the blatant, yet blundering, attempts to distance Creigh Deeds from the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964, especially since the minority vote is crucial in Democratic electoral wins in the state. It was a lose-lose situation. At least I now know where that advice came from.

Evidently, the recommendations in the memo were gleaned by Petts from an internal poll conducted in mid-June by the firm he is a partner with, Bennett, Petts & Normington. They were spelled out in bullet points under the heading, "Conclusions."

It looks like this whole failing campaign started with erroneous assumptions made from an immediate, post-primary poll that showed Deeds with a small primary bounce, leading McDonnell 48 to 44 among "likely" voters.

It appears that Petts actually believed that the Deeds primary victory positioned him to be able to take the Democratic base - core Democrats, northern Virginians and African-Americans - for granted and to focus his efforts on what Petts called "independents outside the DC media market."

Politico points out one sad fact, however. The DC media market Deeds was supposed to ignore contains one-third of all state voters. Add in core Democrats and minority votes and a candidate doesn't need to win a majority of the independent vote, just get a good percentage.

Deeds and his advisers must have misread his defeat of two primary opponents from northern Virginia as a strength he actually didn't have. Deeds is a native of one of the most rural parts of the state, and he has little or nothing in common with voters in northern Virginia. In contrast, his opponent could brag that he grew up in the area before moving to Hampton Roads.

How bad was the Deeds campaign in reaching out to NOVA? Well, he lost Fairfax County, which both parties assumed would be in the Democratic column this year.

Asked why Deeds' support in northern Virginia faded, Petts blamed the national debate over health care that turned off independents. I beg to differ. Deeds lost the independents there when he neither attacked McDonnell's bogus transportation plan nor put forward a plan of his own. Forming a commission to study the matter is not a plan. People in NOVA and Hampton Roads are tired of transportation woes being simply a political football.

For some reason, perhaps the comfort level of the candidate, Creigh Deeds spent the rest of the summer either off the campaign trail or touring around  "Deeds Country, " rural Virginia, a move that made no sense to me or some other grassroots workers who live in "Deeds Country." I could have told Creigh Deeds early on that he would lose the 5th, 6th, and 9th congressional districts, and lose them by substantial margins.

Continuing his crappy advice, Petts said that 2009 would "not be a continuity election like 2005 was," a reference to Tim Kaine's victory as the lieutenant governor for Mark Warner. Thus, Deeds had to distance himself from both Gov. Kaine and President Obama.

How in the world could a candidate accept that advice and then follow it up with no real  answers to the state's most pressing problems? His GOP opponent also understood that this was not a "continuity election." So, he buried his right-wing past and ran on "jobs, jobs, jobs" and his flawed "transportation plan."

Instead of running with the president and our current governor, Deeds was advised by Petts to position himself as a "Mark Warner Democrat," a reference to the popular former governor-turned-senator.

Deeds aired ads featuring Warner, saying he would put himself in the  "Warner-Kaine" tradition of governing, but he pointedly avoided Tim Kaine. That made no sense to some local Democrats.  

We all know how Deeds switched gears in October when his numbers continued to be low in every poll. The campaign finally used an ad that featured President Obama praising Deeds, and then had one joint appearance with the president in Norfolk a week before the election. Lots of minority voters who felt that they had little reason to come out for Creigh Deeds anyway were offended by the treatment of the president.  

Petts final advice in the memo was, "The negatives tested on McDonnell are more damaging than those tested on Deeds."

We all remember that Deeds did get a bit of a bounce for a while from the emplasis on McDonnell's extremist past. However, I still contend that the attacks on McDonnell should have been more on policy, not social issues. We are in a difficult recession. Voters are not focusing on abortion or gay marriage or even women in the workplace in this election. The McDonnell "transportation plan," his emphasis on drilling off the coast, his attack on the originally Republican idea of "cap-and-trade, etc., was a treasure trove for a campaign that knew how to exploit policy for negative attacks.

I kept waiting for a positive plan to accompany the thesis attack. That never came. Up to the day before the election, the Deeds campaign's main reason for asking voters to vote for him was, "I'm not Bob McDonnell."

According to Politico, top national Democrats, frustrated by the race that Deeds ran, believed early on that the Democratic campaign made strategic errors from the moment it won the primary, errors that made a victory ever more difficult.

I agree.

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Hope you're right
No matter how much he says it was info from early in the campaign, any one of us could've told him he needed to concentrate on NOVA and HR instead of the valley.  Plus they took the African American vote for granted.

Right, Frank
And taking for granted any portion of the base was foolish and wrong.  The GOP would never do that.  In fact the national GOP pols are becoming more wingnut fanatical than their own base. I am not advocating our reps go into looney-land.  But, gee, they really bite the hand that feeds them (well, actually, PACS and corporations are doing much of that), or at least gets out the vote for them.

They actually expect us to work for them when we get little to nothing to show by way of representation?  

"One person, one vote" died at the hands of SCOTUS, January 21, 2010

[ Parent ]
I tried to rise above the
statement about Creigh's considering opting out.  But in fact, that was just so hurtful (in so many ways) and so symptomatic of how the whole campaign lost its moorings and forgot who its base was.

"One person, one vote" died at the hands of SCOTUS, January 21, 2010

[ Parent ]
I think the national party should
shake off all the DLC consultants.  Their time has come and gone.  Like the GOP, and its extremist free-marketers, they also have been shown to be wrong. I will not listen to the DLC-oriented GOP-lites ever again.  And I will never give one minute of labor for them either.

"One person, one vote" died at the hands of SCOTUS, January 21, 2010

I Agree about the DLC
I have always felt that the DLC was a response by business-oriented traditional conservatives to the fact that they had no political home except in the Democratic party because the Republicans had fallen off the right wing and into an abyss of nonsense.

Conservatives who believe that government wasn't the problem that Reagan talked about put on the mantle of the DLC and pretended to actually follow Democratic ideals. However, they were quick to sell their political souls to corporate interests.

I was always disappointed that Chuck Robb was one of the founders of the thing. Since the late 80's and early 90's, the DLC has become more and more irrelevant to those of us who actually are Democrats.

[ Parent ]
Do we have any reason to think...
...that Petts is a DLC consultant?  Or is that just a convenient pejorative?

[ Parent ]
The trouble here
is that too many people think Virginia is winnable as a Democrat without being exceptionally adept at communicating a plan. We are not quite the shade of purple that allows us to play the same kind of ball the Republicans do. In Virginia, the Democratic Party is the party of good governance, strong business, and practical taxation. We have to constantly remind voters that we deliver these things rather than promise them the high heavens that our opposition does.

It's also really important to realize that Virginians are overall still excited about our president and the work he is doing. Never apologize about your beliefs. Not bringing in the President earlier was the same as saying, "I am sorry we elected this guy."

We can do better than this and we have 2010 to prove it. Get excited about the House races because we have got to defend our people and win back more territory.

My rep voted no on health care...
nothing to get excited about.

"One person, one vote" died at the hands of SCOTUS, January 21, 2010

[ Parent ]
Let the hospitals he cares about more than people
work to elect him.

"One person, one vote" died at the hands of SCOTUS, January 21, 2010

[ Parent ]
Great comment, and I'm looking ahead to...
...the specials for Cuccinelli's and Ken Stolle's (a longshot on that one I believe) state Senate seats, as well as chipping in some $$$ to help defend Perriello and then get a fair redistricting for 2011.

I feel pretty good that this year's disaster was a one-shot deal at the state level.  Yeah next November could see us lose a seat or two, but maybe not, and ultimately that's a completely different dynamic from the state elections.  We'll recover in 2011 as long as our state Senate majority holds together to force a fair map.

[ Parent ]
In the long run,
it's the captain who makes the final decisions.

Hillary (Clinton) had a lousy crew which, IMO, ruined her campaign and cost her the nomination. But, in the long run... She picked them. It was she, who didn't have sense enough to stop listening to them and following their cockamamie "advice". As I saw her campaign implode, I was pretty sure that giving her an even larger ship to command was not the right solution.

Same's true here. Petts may be an idiot, whose ill advice cost Deeds the election. But, in the long run... It was Deeds' judgment which was lacking, when he followed that advice.

I still like Creigh as a person. And he was my choice in the primaries because I was sure he was the only one to have a sliver of a chance in the general election. Also because I thought that he'd be a good Governor (not just the lesser evil), should he win. But then there was the "I may opt out" on the healthcare and the "holy coal" ads... And now, this, which explains his "disarrayed" campaign... Poor judgment in choosing your crew suggests poor judgment overall.

Not but... I'll still watch for McDonnell's every misstep and rub it into every passing republican face :)

Thanks Elaine
This sure puts things in perspective.

I wonder why the "local talent" Deeds had advising him did not succeed in pushing Deeds off this dangerous course. Perhaps because Petts' advice played to Deeds own predilictions? Perhaps because the local talent did not have experience enough to stand up to the "experts"?

Local talent?
Perhaps none were left on the campaign?

[ Parent ]
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