Harry Reid: Withstanding the Wave

November 15, 2010

Mark Mellman & Jim Margolis (GMMB), THE POLLING REPORT

Pundits and prognosticators, strategists and seers all said it couldn’t be done. Incumbents who garner positive ratings from fewer than four in ten voters and who post double-digit deficits in match-ups against opponents (in public polls) are not supposed to win-and they usually don’t. In fact, combing through the history of polling it is hard to find someone other than Senator Harry Reid who accomplished that feat.

Three prime factors account for this history-making result:

1. Senator Reid is a unique leader who spent decades fighting-and winning-for his state.

2. Reid put together perhaps the best Senate campaign operation ever.

3. Reid empowered a skilled team to devise a methodical campaign plan, long before the election, and the candidate and the team stuck to the plan, despite the naysayers and public pollsters who said the race couldn’t be won.

Setting the Scene As election 2010 approached, Nevada faced desperate economic straits. At nearly 14.5%, unemployment was the highest in the state’s history and the highest in the nation. In the desert state of Nevada, some 60% of homeowners were underwater, holding mortgages that exceeded the value of their homes. Nearly half the electorate said their family was worse off economically than it had been a couple of years before and over half worried that they themselves, or a close relative, would have their home seized.

Such massive economic dislocation spells trouble for the party in power. Just 45% approved of the President’s performance and, in contrast to the rest of the country, slightly more voters harbored negative feelings about Democrats than about Republicans. While voters expressed intense hostility toward Congress as an institution, because of his position as Senate leader, Reid was precluded from running as an outsider.

Finally, while Reid has served Nevada for decades, the state’s explosive growth brought tens of thousands of new voters to the polls who knew very little about the Senator, his background or his accomplishments. His last competitive race was in 1998 against John Ensign, in which he prevailed narrowly. In ’04, Reid’s opponent never passed the credibility threshold in a Senate race that was also overshadowed by the presidential contest. In short, some two-thirds of the 2010 electorate was new to Nevada since Harry Reid ran his last serious race, and that one, by his own admission, was not executed well. Instead of defining himself for voters between elections, that task was left to the press including the virulently anti-Reid Las Vegas Review-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, whose commitment to defeating the Leader has been evident not just on its editorial page but in its supposed “news” coverage as well.

The Republican Primary Given his apparent vulnerability, a number of Republicans sought the opportunity to take on Leader Reid. Understanding Reid’s appeal and his tenacity better than the pundits, the state’s strongest GOP officeholder, Congressman Dean Heller, passed up the race-unwilling to risk his career on what he obviously considered a long shot. With Heller out, the primary seemed like a contest between basketball scion Danny Tarkanian and former newscaster and former Republican state chair Sue Lowden.

Tarkanian never caught on, while Lowden foolishly suggested Americans barter chickens for health care services. Yes, bring a chicken to the doctor the next time you need a check-up she told Nevadans. The always effective Reid press operation put a national spotlight on her inane comments which became a staple of late night comedy routines. As a result, conservative former state legislator and Tea Party leader Sharron Angle won the nomination with 40% of the vote to 26% for Lowden.

Observers enjoy speculating about whether one of the other primary contenders would have proved a more formidable general election candidate. While we can never know for sure what would have happened, what is certain is that these other candidates never made it to the finals, thereby demonstrating considerable weakness. Indeed, Lowden lost the primary not because of ideological impurity, but because voters concluded her health care buffoonery rendered her unacceptable and unelectable.

The Reid Strategy Although Leader Reid was notoriously suspicious of polling and voter research generally, by agreement of the campaign team, the Reid effort was data driven-from message development to ad testing to targeting to evaluation to GOTV. After a series of focus groups and polls, and well before the GOP primary, we presented a strategy to the team focused around six imperatives:

·         We face a tough race regardless of our opponent.

·         Democrats, independents, moderates and Latinos are key to victory.

·         Voters need to know that as majority leader, Reid uses his clout for Nevada, that he sees the world through their eyes and that no one can do more for Nevada than he can.

·         Though our positive message is important, we cannot allow this contest to be a referendum on Harry Reid-disqualifying our opponent must be a central component of our efforts. This election must be a choice for Nevada voters and the candidates must be evaluated against each other.

·         Paid media is the most important tool with sufficient power to alter the outcome of this race.

·         Turning out our voters by establishing a world-class ground operation will be vital to success.

While some cast a dismissive eye at the GOP field, our team never did. Our research made clear that the economic and political environments were such that anyone who emerged from the Republican primary posed a real threat. At no point did any member of the team take Reid’s reelection for granted; no one relaxed, ever. That attitude kindled a relentless focus on setting and achieving goals-a focus which never waned-and a recognition that every decision could be a win/lose moment that needed to be treated accordingly.

Goal setting extended to every facet of our work. Instead of merely looking at crosstabs that enabled us to say we were doing well or less well, better or worse among one group or another, we used historical election data (actual returns and exit polls) to devise vote goals for some two dozen subgroups. Each poll enabled to us to measure our progress toward these goals within each voter segment. Early on it became clear that four segments-Democrats, independents, moderates and Latinos-would prove critical to our success. At the outset, Senator Reid was far behind goal with each of these groups and specific tactics were employed to improve and cement his standing with each.

For example, based on a micro-targeting model, the campaign identified those independents most likely to move toward us, and Mike Muir, of Ambrosino, Muir & Hansen, used early mail to reinforce our TV messages with those select independents. Careful analysis revealed that those who received the mail were in fact moving to a greater degree than others, so the mail program was continued beyond its original expiration date. Later on, we used data from repeat contacts in polls and phone canvasses to model not just undecided voters but true persuadables-those whose vote intention actually changed over the course of the campaign.

Latinos, too, were a particular focus of attention. Several key insights emerged from a special poll of Latino voters which informed campaign activities. First, Spanish dominant Hispanics were even more likely than their English dominant brethren to support Senator Reid. Thus, we knew that monolingual polls of Latinos were much too conservative in stating the level of support for Senator Reid in this community. Second, we learned that while Hispanics (the label they preferred) were committed to immigration reform, economy/jobs and education issues were even more important to them. Finally, we determined that the anti-Latino demagoguery of our opponent, and of Republicans in general, was a powerful motivator for these voters. Again, all these lessons were integrated into the campaign’s advertising, field, political and coalition-building efforts.

Later in the campaign another critical segment was added to this list: defecting Republicans, who came primarily from the ranks of liberal and moderate GOPers. We went into the race assuming an electorate about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. If each candidate consolidated his/her base to the same extent, winning independents was the only way to emerge victorious. While Senator Reid earned the backing of almost every Democrat, a victory with independents afforded a nerve-rackingly narrow path to victory. After our first assault on Angle, we noted that she had not consolidated her partisans to the same extent Senator Reid had. Peeling off even a narrow slice of Republicans afforded the campaign a margin of safety and hence, generating Republican defections became a central imperative.

Fortunately Senator Reid had built strong relationships with key Republicans throughout the state. Other members of the GOP were simply frightened to death of Sharron Angle. Former Reagan aide and leading Republican Sig Rogich had developed a close relationship with the Senator and joined the effort early. The Republican mayor of Reno publicly added his voice in the fall, as did the Republican leader of the State Senate, the former head of the Clark County Republican Party, the former Republican sheriff of Clark County, and former RNC chair Frank Farenkopf. In addition, a number of Republican business leaders, well aware of what Reid has meant for economic development in Nevada, also joined the cause.

Some of these Republicans were used creatively in late television and radio advertisements not only to legitimize and reassure Republican voters who wanted to defect from their party, but also to fortify independents who were conflicted about the candidates, all while they delivered a credible, counter-to-type message about the danger of electing Angle.

Moving Nevadans into Senator Reid’s corner required a positive message that met voters where they were. Given the state’s desperate economic condition, it was impossible to say “Senator Reid is solving all your problems,” but it was credible to argue that he is focused on the problems voters are confronting and that no one-absolutely no one-is better able to help the state than the majority leader of the Senate.

Thus, our positive message had to make clear that whatever doubts, concerns or questions voters had, they would be losing something important if they fired Harry Reid. Merely asserting that, however, was worse than inadequate.

During Governor Jennifer Granholm’s 2006 reelection campaign in recession wracked Michigan, The Mellman Group team faced an analogous situation in which they learned some key lessons. First, tense is important-arguing that good things have happened is not credible; suggesting that they will happen is believable. Second, big numbers or broad sweeping assertions don’t work, while individual stories of accomplishments do connect.

With these lessons in mind, the creative team at GMMB developed a series of future oriented ads around Reid’s influence and effectiveness that were then tested. What emerged from a long process was the notion that “no one can do more for Nevada”-an ambiguously tensed line that did not elicit counter arguments because it built on voters’ preexisting attitudes. Support for the theme was provided by a series of stories powerfully told through the eyes of individuals who had been affected by Reid’s efforts: a veteran who could get treatment in Las Vegas instead of driving to San Diego because Reid had gotten a veterans hospital built in Las Vegas; a worker whose job (and those of 22,000 others) at a major casino construction project was saved because Reid talked banks into extending loans; individuals who were working in the new clean energy industry which Reid is building in Nevada.

Just Too Extreme As important as the positive message would prove to be in providing a backstop and rationale for Reid supporters, it was clear from the data that in this toxic environment we could not sustain an up or down referendum on Harry Reid. Disqualifying our opponent was central to our strategy. Having studied Democratic failures in Massachusetts and New Jersey during 2009, we concluded that once challengers picked up a head of steam in this climate, stopping them was exponentially more difficult. We therefore resolved to begin to define our opponent immediately after the primary. To that end we tested arguments against each of our potential adversaries in polling before the primary and developed a “first line of attack” against each.

Thus, when Sharron Angle emerged victorious from the primary, we were immediately on the air with a devastating attack highlighting her view that Social Security and Medicare should be wiped out.

Further polling assessed which arguments (uncovered by an amazing opposition research team) would prove most compelling to voters. Then, under an umbrella frame that “Sharron Angle was just too extreme,” the general election campaign was launched.

GMMB quickly produced a whole package of spots which were then tested, yielding another important lesson: Voters doubted anybody could be quite as crazy as we said Angle was. Spots that included Angle speaking in her own words proved most effective because they overcame these doubts. This finding was incorporated into most of the subsequent ads, which frequently featured Angle herself on video or audio tape (provided by our fearless trackers) stating her outrageous and extreme positions.

Showcasing her belief that Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Education and the Veterans Administration should be abolished combined to push Angle far out of the mainstream. As a result, her unfavorable ratings skyrocketed, jumping to 52%, up 32 points between March and August.

As we moved into the fall, the foundation had been laid to take Angle’s “extreme” positions to a new level: dangerous. In short, electing Sharron Angle would have real consequences for the electorate.

In part that meant paid advertising and earned media highlighting Angle’s vote against criminal background checks for those who work with children, and her vote against requiring insurance companies to cover breast and colon cancer tests. But we also moved the message directly to the economy, the area toward which Angle had been directing most of her firepower, trying to blame the world-wide recession on President Obama and Senator Reid (needless to say an argument with its own serious credibility problems). Earlier Angle had said she would not have taken action to save the troubled City Center project in Las Vegas, and its 22,000 jobs-action Reid successfully took, allowing the nation’s largest private development to open.

We used Angle’s videotaped comments repeatedly in ads making the case that she wouldn’t solve the economic crisis, she would make it worse. We also ratcheted up the tenor of our attack by putting Republican business leaders on camera (and on radio) saying bluntly that electing Sharron Angle would cost Nevada jobs. In a state where unemployment topped 15% on Election Day, that was a grave danger.

By the time voters cast ballots, Angles unfavorables were over 55% and Senator Reid’s net favorables were 10 points stronger than Angle’s. Team Reid had been successful in making the race a choice that was at least as much about Angle as it was about Reid.

The final strategic imperative we identified arose from the fact that consistent voters were less likely to support Reid than those with inconsistent voting records. Therefore insuring that our supporters actually cast ballots was vitally important, and Senator Reid’s campaign responded to the challenge by building the most effective turnout operation ever constructed for a Senate contest. It was a beauty to behold, devised and implemented by two of the most impressive campaign professionals we have ever worked with, campaign manager Brandon Hall and veteran Nevada strategist Rebecca Lamb (who oversaw every aspect of the campaign and were backed by an incredible team of communications, field and GOTV experts).

By the beginning of the early vote period the Reid campaign was in the process of meeting all its core strategic goals, giving the Senator a comfortable, better than 5-point win, despite predictions that his political career was coming to an end.

The Polls The presumption that Reid was unelectable rested on a series of public polls, nearly all of which showed Reid behind Angle. Indeed, in October alone the Nevada press reported on 14 surveys, only one of which showed Leader Reid ahead. Using models based in part on these polls, The New York Times’ Nate Silver gave Reid less than a one in six chance of victory.

Lots of excuses have been offered for the inaccuracy of the public polls, from margin of error, to late shifts in the race and under-sampling Latinos. It should be clear that it was far from impossible to get this race “right.” As an article in the Las Vegas Sun headlined “How Harry Reid’s Pollster Got It Right” explained, our internal polling predicted the outcome exactly.

The public polls in Nevada were wrong because their methodology was fundamentally flawed. We were able to reproduce results close to those of the public polls by replicating those flaws and measuring the impact. Three core problems afflicted the public polls in Nevada:

Defining likely voters: A CNN/Time poll which gave Reid an 11-point lead among registered voters-a fact you’d be hard-pressed to unearth in the panoply of press generated by this survey-offers some data on the problem. Analysts focused on “likely voters,” and among those designated likely to vote by CNN/Time, opponent Sharron Angle eked out a 2-point advantage.

Distinguishing between likely and less likely voters is a complex task which some pollsters get wrong. For example, they may rely on self-reported enthusiasm to differentiate likely from less likely voters, despite the fact that research has demonstrated no link between enthusiasm and individual level of turnout.

Even if a researcher surmounts that problem, a steeper hurdle remains. Calling someone a “likely” voter is to make a probability statement. A likely voter may have, say, an 80% chance of turning out, while a “less likely voter” may have only a 20% chance of casting a ballot. In that scenario, 20 of every 100 likely voters will not show up, while 20 of every 100 less likely voters will. No real electorate is composed exclusively of “likely voters.” In Nevada’s early vote alone, over 30% of those who cast ballots were not consistent voters.

Consider the arithmetic impact. If just 30% of the Nevada electorate was composed of “less likely voters,” Reid would have held a nearly 8-point lead in the Time/CNN poll-much closer to the eventual result.

Polling only the easy-to-reach: Some people are harder to reach on the phone than others. Good pollsters go to great lengths to secure a completed interview with the respondent originally identified at random, while cheap, quickie polls survey the respondents who are easiest to reach. Willy-nilly substitution produces not a random sample, but rather a sample of easy-to-reach voters, who may differ from others. Lo and behold, they are different. At one point Senator Reid led by just 2 points among those interviewed on the first or second attempt, but by 9 points among harder-to-reach respondents who required three or more calls.

Cell phones: Robopolls, like those produced by Rasmussen, are precluded by law from calling cell phones. At one stage Reid led by 19 points among those reached on cell phones, but was nearly tied among those reached on land lines.

As a result of these methodological shortcomings, many public polls contributed to a net loss of knowledge about this race.

A Final Note After the election one account of the race suggested the win was “lucky.” In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Senator Reid recognized the headwinds he was confronting long before November 2nd. He was determined to tell his story and make sure voters knew the choice before them. He then empowered an amazing campaign staff that brought management skill, press savvy, astonishing fundraising expertise and a breathtaking ground game to work each day.

While we made errors to be sure, a dedication to research and a willingness to stick to our paid media plan ultimately combined to prove many pundits wrong and re-elect one of our nation’s most important leaders.

The Reid effort was many things. But the one thing it wasn’t was lucky.

Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.