Tabula Rossi tagged by Gregoire’s values campaign

I’m in the midst of writing a rather longish post-election analysis of the gubernatorial race, attempting to explain Gov. Chris Gregoire’s decisive victory in what most observers expected to be a nail-biter of a rematch, but I thought I’d take a moment to quickly share a rather heretical observation:  Gregoire not only ran a better campaign, her winning strategy was exemplified by her much maligned ads attacking Dino Rossi for opposing embryonic stem cell research.

Of course it is true, as many critics have pointed out, that few if any voters would cast their ballots based on an issue the Seattle Times angrily argued had “nothing to do” with the job of governor, but that critique misses the broader symbolic value of the issue.  What the Gregoire campaign accomplished with these ads was something they failed to even attempt in 2004:  they defined Rossi as a religious conservative, a strategy that ultimately pays off big dividends with our state’s politically split, but decidedly socially libertarian electorate.

In fact, I’d argue that the Gregoire campaign borrowed an earmarked page from the Republican playbook, successfully portraying the Governor as the candidate who best represented the values of the majority of voters.  And toward that end, these stem cell ads proved to be an extremely effective if subtle tactic.

One could have attacked Rossi on his opposition to legal abortion, but a lot of people oppose abortion on moral grounds, and we tend to be a religiously tolerant nation.  One could have attacked Rossi on the pharmacist rule or abstinence only sex education, but these are complicated issues not easily explained in a 30-second spot.  But the stem cell research issue proved to be a perfect proxy, defining Rossi as a candidate who would impose his own conservative religious values even into the realm of science, adversely affecting the ability of individuals to make health care decisions for themselves.  In effect, these stem cell ads defined Rossi as too conservative for Washington, along the lines of Ellen Craswell and John Carlson.

Indeed, this values theme was repeated throughout Gov. Gregoire’s paid media, for example, on the issues of education and children’s health care.  Even on the issue of our state’s projected multi-billion dollar revenue shortfall, the Gregoire campaign focused on her pro-children values, emphasizing that Rossi attempted to cut health care for 40,000 children while the Governor expanded the rolls, and that Gregoire had increased spending on education while Rossi’s transportation spending proposal would come at the expense of our schools.  Who do you best trust to balance our budget, Gregoire asked, leaving it to voters to choose the candidate who best represented their values.

By comparison, the Rossi campaign was for the most part value free, attacking Gregoire on her performance in office—taxes, spending, budget deficit, etc.—while failing to even attempt to define the Governor as too liberal, apart from a half-hearted last ditch effort to claim she would impose an income tax.  Likewise, following 2004’s successful Tabula Rossi strategy—in which voters read moderation into his refusal to discuss social issues—Rossi even declined to define himself.  Only this time around, the Gregoire campaign did it for him.  As Stuart Elway noted in his October poll:

“Gregoire has an edge on values among those who care most about those issues.  Gregoire is seen as Moderate Liberal.  Rossi is seen as conservative.  He wasn’t in 2004.

This shift in public perception of Rossi’s values proved to be one of the major differences between 2004 and 2008… and it didn’t happen by accident.  Score one for the Gregoire campaign.


  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Insightful analysis, Goldy. I think you’re right. Rossi’s campaign mirrored McCain’s, and failed for the same reasons: They both expended all their efforts on attacking their Democratic opponents, weren’t for anything, and never gave voters reasons to vote for them. Plus, wrong on the issues, too conservative for the electorate, and their negative campaigning turned off voters weary of nasty partisanship.

  2. 2

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Reading letters to the editor, AOL comment threads, and righty comments on various blogs, it’s clear to me that wingnuts are shell-shocked and in a state of collective denial.

    They don’t realize they’ve suffered a crushing electoral defeat. They don’t grasp that the country has turned its back on them. It’s going to be a long, cold winter for our righty friends as they ever-so-slowly wake up to the fact they’re out of power, out of vogue, and have no friends.

    It’s lonely out there in the wilderness.

  3. 3

    Michael spews:

    What the Gregoire campaign accomplished with these ads was something they failed to even attempt in 2004: they defined Rossi as a religious conservative, a strategy that ultimately pays off big dividends with our state’s politically split, but decidedly socially libertarian electorate.

    Amen, brother.

  4. 4

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Rossi lost by 133 votes in 2004. He lost by over 172,000 votes in 2008. That’s a 130,000% increase in Gregoire’s victory margin.

  5. 6

    ivan spews:

    I think you nailed this one, Goldy. Gregoire’s biggest gains were among women aged 18-34. Those stem cell ads had to have something to do with that.

    Luigi Giovanni @ 5:

    If “high information” equates to reading anything Joni Balter writes, then pigshit is gold.

  6. 7

    M spews:

    Nailed it. Gregoire stole the Republicans’ best issues by acknowledging that the budget would need to be cut, and by pledging not to raise taxes. Then she made it about the values to be applied when cutting the budget.

    That message reached those voters who are liberal-ish but also worried about too much government — ie: the swing voters.

    I must admit I didn’t see it that well during the campaign, but the Gregoire campaign actually seemed to have a strategy this time.

  7. 8

    Daddy Love spews:

    I have to admit that wwhen I heard the “values” ads from Gregiore’s campaign, I didn’t get it. I thought that it was too soft a message, and that it did not really cut to the heart of the matter–that Dino really is just a straight-up standard-issue shill-for-big-business/religious right conservative. But Heavens to Betsy (to quote Rummy), she got it right! Someone in her campaign should get a BIG bonus.

  8. 9

    rhp6033 spews:

    I’ll admit to being wrong about Gregoire’s campaign, also. I worried that she wasn’t responding forcefully enough to Rossi’s attack ads on the budget. I was worried that she was conceeding the budget issue to him, at least in the eyes of the “uninformed” voter, who largly makes up their mind by watching TV commercials.

    But the professionals managing her campaign seemed to know what was best, so I’ll have to conceed on that point.

    But I still think she should have hit the BIAW link harder – a campaign which directly linked Rossi to the BIAW’s “environmentalism = nazis” views, and calling on Rossi to repudiate the BIAW forcefully and give back their money. Put him – and them – on the defensive.

    But when you get around to it, despite Rossi’s attempts to hit the “sex preditors lost on her watch” and “foster children” deceptive ads, Rossi’s entire campaign came down to an ANTI-TAX strategy. Since Gregoire said she didn’t plan to raise taxes (other than those expressly approved by voter initiative), he was left with trying to convince voters that the state was in such dire economic crisis, she would have no choice but to raise taxes, despite what she said otherwise.

    I’m beginning to wonder if the Republicans have ANY agenda left other than to cut their own taxes.

  9. 10

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @7 “Gregoire stole the Republicans’ best issues by acknowledging that the budget would need to be cut, and by pledging not to raise taxes.”

    Yes, but the trouble is, by forcing her into this corner, the Republicans won everything except the office itself. Our redistributionist tax system that taxes poor people 17% of their income while rich people pay only 4% will stay in place. Spending will not grow to meet public needs by taxing those who are able to pay and aren’t paying their fair share. Being able to appoint department heads doesn’t mean much when you have to force them to cut their programs.

    We need to have a serious discussion with our citizens about Washington’s patchwork, Rube Goldberg, regressive tax system. We need to take the fear out of tax reform by debunking the Republican lies about who will be hurt by a state income tax. Obama was able to accomplish this on a national scale by pointing out that most people will benefit from his tax reforms. Likewise, replacing the sales and B&O taxes with a state income tax would benefit the vast majority of Washingtonians.

    But groundwork must be laid before anything can be done. We need to get the truth out there and overcome the GOP lies before any governor or legislature will be able to enact tax reform. There should be a Gregoire third term, and it should focus on reallocating the state and local tax burden to end socialism-for-the-rich in our state. Obama will do it at the federal level, but getting it done in Washington is up to us.

  10. 11

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @9 The Republicans have never had any agenda beyond putting money they didn’t earn in their own pockets. The social issues were merely a means to that end. No one has been more exploited than the right-to-life and other “social values” voters to whom the Repugs promised much and delivered nothing.

    Republicans don’t believe in earning money the old-fashioned way: By competing in the marketplace with better products and services; by producing more efficiently; by inventing and innovating.

    Their agenda is relatively simple: Enrich themselves by shifting risks to others while taking the profits for themselves, by shifting tax burdens from themselves to others; and by using the power of government to give themselves a free hand to exploit workers and consumers alike.

    You don’t actually make much money in a competitive marketplace, because competition forces down price which narrows profit margins. I’ve never met a businessman who likes competition. Republicans eagerly use government to shut out competition, and they are not above outright socialism, as we are seeing in the Bush Bailouts. To find someone who thinks saving large financial or manufacturing firms by making taxpayers bear their losses is a good idea, you need to go to the Republican Party. Republicans are for free markets only as long as the markets produce profits; when they don’t, Republicans become Marxists faster than you can blink.

  11. 12

    joel connelly spews:

    Didn’t Obama’s half-million-vote victory over McCain/Barracuda in Washington have just an itsy-bitsy impact on the governor’s race in our state?
    And on the U.S. Senate race in Oregon.
    A Brooklyn Democratic leader named Hymie Shortensen used to tell this story: An ambitious, high-on-ballot Democratic candidate was complaining about the campaign being waged on his behalf.
    Shortensen asked him to look out across New York harbor.
    “‘See the Staten Island ferry? When the ferry comes into the dock, it carries in a lot of sludge with it. Franklin D. Roosevelt is the Staten Island ferry. You are the sludge.”
    The guy won.

  12. 13


    Joel @12,

    Of course Obama’s victory had an impact, but I don’t think it was the decisive factor that Republicans are saying it was. In any case, I’ll get to that in a later post.

  13. 14

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    The Republican argument for giving themselves privileged tax rates has always been based on dangling jobs before Congress and voters. We need to get past that falsehood. Businesses and investors don’t create jobs. Customers do.

    It is empirically demonstrable that Bush’s tax cuts for the rich didn’t create jobs or lower unemployment. Bush has one of the worst job records of any president.

    The asset-owning class knows perfectly well they don’t earn profits or dividends by investing. They make money by selling, not owning per se.

    When consumers have the means to buy, everyone prospers. If consumer spending lags, jobs and profits disappear. Businesses hire because, and only when, consumers spend. Customers are the team that pulls the cart filled with jobs and profits. Without customers, no one else gets anything.

    If you want jobs, give the tax breaks to the customer class, not the owner class. It’s that simple.

  14. 15

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @12 Gregoire won in 2004 without Obama. Her margin in 2008 was about 172,000 votes wider. Did some of that come from Obama’s coattails? Oh, maybe. But there were other factors:

    In 2008, she didn’t have a Libertarian opponent siphoning away 60,000 votes from the gay community.

    In 2008, she had a record as governor to run on, and many voters approved of the job she’s done.

    In 2008, Rossi was better known to voters, and more voters saw through his phony moderate pretense.

    Joel, the fact Obama’s margin in Washington was 450,000 and Gregoire’s was 172,000 itself proves that voters didn’t march down the ballot in lockstep with the top of the ticket. Conversely to your argument, it demonstrates that Washington voters make their voting decisions in each race independently of other races. Looking at the disparity in these numbers, it’s clear that 275,000 Obama voters also voted for Rossi. That doesn’t look like much of a coattail effect to me.

    I’m inclined to believe Gregoire has her own base of support (i.e., people and rabbits like me), and voters re-elected her on her personal merits, and not so much on Obama’s coattails.

  15. 16

    hinweis spews:

    Goldy, you’ve hit it on the head with this one. Gregoire knew that this time around, they really had to rip the bark off of Rossi. To the latter’s credit, he said Gregoire and her operatives would do or say anything to assure her re-election. Your post, and perhaps we should conclude your forthcoming column, go a long way in confirming this.

  16. 17

    DJ Wilson spews:

    I think your basic point on values is correct, but not that it was particularly focused on the ‘majority’ of voters. One of the sophisticated points about the Gregoire campaign’s use of values down the stretch is that the particular messaging focused on the only remaining ‘swing’ voters left: suburban women.

    If you were a man, you had made up your mind. If you were an urban or rural voter, you had made up your mind. This was the campaign’s sense of things from internal numbers as they launched the stem cell campaign, and when they launched Plan B drug use.

    Even minimum wage played to that. For men, a minimum wage job is a stepping stone, or weigh station, on the way to something better. It’s less personal, and more transitory.

    For women, a minimum wage job is something that keeps food on the table for their kids. Single women making minimum wage (or suburban women who feared that they could be working one day for minimum wage), who may not have been clear about who they supported, saw those ads and it had a polarizing effect.

    Again, to your basic point: kudos to the Gregoire campaign team. This year, they were just very, very good.

  17. 18

    cracked spews:

    I may have to rethink my “Gregoire runs crappy campaigns” argument.

    Your analysis of their surgical precision is compelling.

  18. 19

    Particle Man spews:

    The series of values ads also erased the gain Rossi created with the Go pp affiliation since they served to communicate that Dino was not only more conservative on social issues but also that he was obviously an old school republican.
    These ads did not get the job done alone though. The issues ads and those defining Rossi based upon his business and legislative record were also key.
    In the end folks could not support a shifty, cash seeking, compass lacking, working man harming ,MBA / BIAW tool.