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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Commentary: Going Negative Still Works... If you do it right

I was reading the Davis Enterprise post mortem on the Assembly campaign that they largely did not cover. I say that less as a means of boasting than true concern. It hit me on the Saturday before the election when the Yamada campaign was hosting a press conference in response to the "Latte Mailer" and the only press there was myself. Imagine being attacked, you do not have time to respond with your own mailer, and instead you have a press conference where the press does not show up. How do you get your message out?

As it turns out that slew of negative mailers did not help Ed Voice or Christopher Cabaldon. The public largely had either seen through it or tuned out by that point and Mariko Yamada won a narrow but surprising victory both in the pre-election absentee ballots and on election day itself.

Nevertheless, though we had no access to polls, it was easy to see that Cabaldon was comfortably ahead four weeks before the election. According to him that translated to a 14-point lead that felt to most of us like a 24-point lead.

And while Davis Enterprise Columnist Bob Dunning spends a good portion of his column yesterday complaining about the onslaught of ads in his mailbox--the ads by and large worked.

Did Cabaldon hit on too many mailers with help from the IEs? Probably. But as he pointed out to me, in Davis people were complaining about the quantity, in parts of Solano, they did not even know there was an election.

Most of the early Cabaldon pieces were positive ads, designed to sell the candidacy of Cabaldon. They were not primarily negative ads.

In the Enterprise article Cabaldon found the culprit by examining the polls.
"Cabaldon, on the other hand, said today he has reviewed polling that organizations did in the weeks leading up to the election and there is no doubt about what spoiled his lead: negative mailers."
It seems as soon as the negative ads came out, Cabaldon was thrown off-balance. Or at least his IEs were.

Bob Dunning makes a good point, the Farmer's Market ad was largely a good one, but there was one key mistake that people noted.

Dunning writes:
"Oh yeah, I forgot. Chris used the Farmers' Market as a backdrop for one of his TV ads where he tried to suggest to Davis voters that he was one of us with the closing words: 'But this is Davis and we're smarter than that.'

We? Does that suggest some sort of brotherhood between the citizens of Davis and candidate Cabaldon?"
Bob Dunning is correct here, anyone knows that Christopher Cabaldon is not from Davis and so when he says, "we're smarter than that," it rings hollow and sounds like pandering.

But the larger points that Bob Dunning makes are wrong. Was it nasty? Oh sure. But without the nasty Yamada IEs, she is not in the race. She does not win.

So here are the real lessons that you must learn from this race:

1. Too many positives mailers early by Cabaldon. It is nice that he was trumpeting himself, but you only need a handful, not multiple mailers each day.

2. Going negative works even when the issue is somewhat silly like the car boot. Or perhaps others were more offended by the car boot than I think.

3. Be the first one to go negative. Cabaldon was the second one in the fight and for some reason it always looks defensive when you respond.

4. Negative ads have to be simple. The Wal Mart ad was effective for the Yamada side because everyone understands the issue around Wal Mart. The Cabaldon response was too difficult to discuss. If you have to explain it, you lose. If someone says you take Wal Mart money and brought Wal Mart to West Sacramento, it is hard to response I actually was against it, but I voted for it due to legal issues, even though I have been bragging about redevelopment in West Sacramento and Wal Mart has come up as part of the redevelopment. Sorry, too long.

5. Negative ads can backfire. You cannot just make stuff up that sounds non-credible. Three of the attack ads by Ed Voice just made no sense--the pay raise, the Latte, and especially the Yolo County Housing Authority. As dumb as you think the electorate is, they seem to see through some of the ads.

Matt Rexroad was quoted in the article arguing that Mariko Yamada's personal precinct walking did not factor in. I tend to agree on that point. However, there is secondary point and that is that the unions had 250 people in the field on the weekend before and the day of the election. They did a better job of getting out their vote than Cabaldon who could only manage 100 people in the field during that time. And I think that does matter.

Bottom line folks, negative ads work but they are not a guarantee. They have to hit on vulnerabilities with the candidate. I just do not think that Yamada's vulnerabilities rested with her support of pay increases, spending on Latte program, or her handling of the Yolo County Housing Authority. Whereas Cabaldon did have apparent vulnerabilities with the perception that he seemed to think he was above the law and the perception that he was beholden to big developers and big box retail. Thus the Yamada IEs were more effective in the end, than Christopher Cabaldon's.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting