2016: Déjà vu All Over Again?

By: Scott Jennings

This column appears in the September 21, 2016 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. http://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/columnists/2016/09/20/jennings-2016-dj-vu-all-over-again/89993796/

A Democrat — a dizzy, spent force after years on the political merry-go-round — who just can’t get over the hump.

A Republican every Democrat wanted to run against, victorious in a primary he wasn’t supposed to win, whose Teflon confounds opposition researchers.

A news media completely at odds with a Republican who delights in taunting the scribes who follow him. Their stories, disqualifying for any other candidate in any other year, have no impact.

Two candidates who people say could only beat the other, star-crossed opponents who truly need each other.

Voters telling pollsters one thing while keeping their hearts’ true contents a secret.

Wealthy Republican elites backing a Democrat, sure their party will be destroyed if the GOP nominee wins. A Democratic grassroots lethargically allowing their nominee to fail, unhappy with a status quo pick whose cautiousness fails to inspire.

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If this sounds familiar to Kentucky voters, it should. In 2015, Republican Matt Bevin overcame the odds to win a primary he wasn’t supposed to and a general election most thought was a slam dunk for Democrat Jack Conway, who led in almost all public polling.

As Donald Trump pulls into a tie with Hillary Clinton nationally and in many swing states, the similarities between Kentucky’s gubernatorial contest and this presidential campaign pile up. Even with the differences you can’t help but wonder: have we seen this movie before?

Bevin and Trump — Two businessmen-turned-candidates running from outside the system upended a GOP primary to beat people with more experience. Both were savaged by reporters who delighted in pointing out inconsistent statements. Both faced onslaughts of “oppo dumps” (the practice of campaigns feeding negative research to reporters to generate bad news stories) dealing with their business records. Bevin and Trump have both shown an amazing ability to absorb political and media attacks that, in years gone by, would have gravely wounded a candidacy.

A key difference, however, is Bevin’s natural connection to the Christian conservatives who make up a significant block of the grassroots wing of the Republican Party. Bevin embodies pro-family Christian values, a powerful signal to volunteers and voters in a state that is culturally more conservative than the nation at large. Trump has struggled to communicate with Christians but may be saved by an opponent who is singularly loathed by values voters, and by swing states more secular than Kentucky.

Poll ceiling? — Like Conway, Clinton has led most surveys. The trouble for Clinton — a universally known politician — is that she’s stuck under 45 percent no matter how you slice it. Similarly, of the 15 public surveys taken in the gubernatorial contest, Conway led Bevin in 12 of them but eclipsed 45 percent just once. Conway’s polling average was a lowly 42.7 percent but he was widely viewed as the favorite because he typically led Bevin in major polls, albeit by small margins.

The pollsters got Conway very right — he wound up with 43.8 percent on Election Day (a 1.1 percent difference). However, they got Bevin very wrong as he won easily with 52.5 percent (his polling average was 39.5 percent, a whopping 13-point miss). Is Trump in for a similar secret, pollster-defying boost?

There are differences, of course. First, the quality and volume of presidential polling far surpasses what we saw in Kentucky. Second, the Electoral College throws a wrinkle into comparing the two (there is a very real chance Clinton could win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College, according to analyst David Wasserman). Third, turnout will be much higher this year (around 60 percent) than in Kentucky last year (about 30 percent). Fourth, minority voters in key areas are a far bigger problem for Trump than they were for Bevin.

Still, it is hard not to wonder if voters, processing a Democrat they know and don’t really like, are holding something back when the pollsters call.

Democratic spending edge for naught? — While the Republican Governor’s Association helped level the playing field for Bevin in 2015, Conway’s aggregate forces outspent Bevin’s by a significant margin. Despite the financial advantage (including a few donations from donors who typically back Republicans), Conway’s team never found a message that made him likeable or revealed a good reason for his running. They resorted mostly to attack ads, never actually dealing with Conway’s own shortcoming as a candidate. His halting, tentative debate performances hurt more than they helped, and the negative ads bounced off Bevin like Florida State tacklers off University of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

The same thing is happening in 2016. Politico reported this week that “Hillary Clinton has invested seven times the amount of money on TV commercials” as Trump in key states. But, as the song says, money can’t buy her love. Despite the crushing advantage, Clinton has seen her lead evaporate nationally and in places like Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and Florida.

Money is to politics what yeast is to bread, but a baker knows you have to feed the yeast with sugar to make it rise. Clinton’s handlers need to borrow a cup to avoid a result like the flat Conway loaf that emerged from Kentucky’s electoral oven last year. Otherwise, they may be looking at a similar result come Election Day.

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Scott Jennings previously served as an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at scott@runswitchpr.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.