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.