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Opinion: Is the Democrats’ Pivot to a ‘Scandal Strategy’ a Wrong Turn?

Voters may not bite and there’s potential for blowback

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn’t “drain the swamp” as promised in 2006, and a Democratic pivot to an anti-corruption strategy may not get much traction with voters, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn’t “drain the swamp” as promised in 2006, and a Democratic pivot to an anti-corruption strategy may not get much traction with voters, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In 2006, Nancy Pelosi told The Associated Press that after 10-plus years of Republican control of the House, she would begin to “drain the swamp” in her first 100 hours as speaker and also “break the link between lobbyists and legislation.”

Yes. She really said “drain the swamp.”

Here’s Leader Pelosi again: “The American people are sick of getting a raw deal from Washington and they’re tired of broken promises to ‘drain the swamp.’”

But this quote isn’t from 2006. It’s from a recent Democratic statement issued as part of the Pelosi/Schumer press event staged on the Capitol steps to showcase “A Better Deal for Our Democracy,” the latest plank in their election year agenda.

Of course, Democrats didn’t “drain the swamp” in 2007 with a Democratic majority in the House. Nor did they in 2009 with their filibuster-proof Senate and the White House. From Chris Dodd and Countrywide Mortgage to Solyndra to Lois Lerner and the IRS to Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails, the swamp seemed to do just fine with Democrats at the helm.

In a story earlier this week about the Democrats’ pivot to an anti-corruption message, Politico repeated one of the great American campaign myths — that the Mark Foley scandal was the defining issue that cost Republicans the House in 2006.

“Homing in on Republican scandals proved to be a wildly successful messaging plan for Democrats, sweeping them back into power in both the House and Senate,” according to Politico

Not exactly.

In the weeks after that election, Democrats and the media laid blame for the GOP defeat squarely at the feet of Foley and the Republican scandals. But our New Models survey conducted on election night showed something entirely different from conventional wisdom at the time.

Numbers tell the story

We asked voters to rank what was important to them in determining their vote for Congress on a 1-9 scale, with 1 being not important at all and 9 being extremely important.

The top issues were “war in Iraq/against terror” (7.71), “job creation/economy” (7.18) and “taxes” (6.79). “Cost of healthcare and drugs” was right behind at 6.77.

Where was “Allegations of Congressional corruption involving Jack Abramoff”? It came in at 5.26.

Or “Republicans’ handling of recent allegations against former Congressman Mark Foley”? Near the bottom at 4.90.

Only the death of Saddam Hussein (4.78), gay marriage (4.63) and the Terri Schiavo case (3.90) came in lower.

But for the media, scandal was an easier default explanation of what happened, and so the myth grew. To validate our initial data, we asked a “corruption vs. competency” question in the New Models survey from Dec. 26 to 27, 2006.

We asked voters to think about how they made their decision between the candidates in the last election (2006 congressional) and which of the following was more important to them: corruption and scandals such as Abramoff’s and the handling of the Foley incident (20 percent), or competency and the ability to govern, such as the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Dubai Ports issue (61 percent).

Bigger concerns

In this direct choice, concerns about governing and competency far outweighed corruption and scandals. It wasn’t that the scandals weren’t important — it was that the electorate had larger concerns.

For those skeptics of internal polls, here’s more proof. The 2006 media exit poll looked at the time of decision-making and vote behavior. The Foley scandal broke at the very end of September. The exit poll showed that voters who made their decision before Oct. 1, in essence pre-scandal, favored Democrats 54 percent to 45  percent. Those who made their decision after Oct. 1 favored Democrats 54 percent to 44 percent.

In other words, the numbers don’t support the idea that the Foley scandal drove the Democrats’ big win in November. At most, it had a limited impact on the election outcome, but reinforced the trend in the Democrats’ favor.

So why did Democrats pivot to an anti-corruption message this week, especially given the risks for either party in focusing on the issue? Apparently, they believe their own spin that their 2006 victory was all about scandals and corruption.

Rahm Emanuel, the key figure behind the Democrats’ 2006 policy messaging vehicle, “Six for ’06,” seemed at the time to see things a little differently. His election year campaign strategy focused on national security and a range of middle-class economic legislative themes. Anti-corruption reforms were not the main focus of that agenda.

One can argue whether or not the Six for ’06 agenda drove voter behavior. But while the Republican scandals certainly weren’t helpful to the GOP cause, they weren’t the defining factor in the election either.

Republicans did misread the electorate and crafted a strategy based on three elements: attack the opponent, localize the election, and build a better voter turnout operation. It didn’t work.

So, where are both sides today? What a difference a week makes.

In last week’s column, I wrote that it’s “too soon to bet the ranch on the midterms.”

Over the past week, there have been a rash of media stories suggesting the political environment might be improving for Republicans and maybe the blue wave isn’t quite as certain as once thought.

As I write this, Reuters’ five-day rolling generic ballot test has Republicans in the lead for the first time this cycle, 38.1 percent to 36.7 percent. Good news for the GOP, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on one good number either.

Less than two weeks after Pelosi announced that her party would focus its campaign on the economy, her shift to an anti-corruption message creates an inherent risk for Democrats. To accuse someone or something of corruption demands a high burden of proof. Claiming a person has done something potentially wrong is not enough; you must prove intent as well. This kind of message — for either party — is usually less believable outside their own base.

Potential blowback

In addition to the scandals that have plagued Democrats, making this the centerpiece of their narrative puts them only one scandal away from backfiring. Just one.

With the Justice Department Inspector General’s FBI report due to drop any day and new DOJ investigations of alleged law enforcement agency abuses in the last election, the phrase “A Better Deal” could take on new meaning.

An anti-corruption agenda didn’t win Democrats the House in 2006. It’s not likely to win it for them this year.


David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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