Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Unforced Errors and Missed Opportunities: A Johnson Campaign Retrospective

In my last post about the 2014 elections I promised a more full accounting of the unforced errors, mistakes, and missed opportunities that were made by the Jeff Johnson for Governor campaign.

To repeat:  I believe that Governor Mark Dayton could have been beaten this year, but Republicans chose not to do so, by fielding the wrong candidate and then allowing that candidate to surround himself with the wrong advisers.  Simply put, it is my contention that Jeff Johnson and his team ran a bad campaign, and that’s the reason Mark Dayton will be Governor for 4 more years.  The election results were close enough that the many bad decisions made by Johnson and his staff made a difference in the outcome of the election.

I am performing this exercise as a (most likely futile) attempt to ensure that future campaigns don't make the same mistakes.

Here are a few of the avoidable mistakes that were made, in no particular order.

Making the Race about Dayton as a Person, not Dayton's Policies
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this election was the desperate and bitter strategy that many Republicans embraced so wholeheartedly- focusing on Mark Dayton's health.  I wrote about how this was a losing strategy here.

This was part of an overall strategy by Johnson's campaign to attack Mark Dayton the person, not the policies of Dayton's Administration and the DFL dominated legislature.

In the closing days of the election, Johnson's team pushed a narrative that Dayton was too old or incompetent to run state government.  This was after they had previously tried to paint Dayton as "Unaware" of the decisions made in his administration.

Yet Dayton's approval rating held steady- Rasmussen had him consistently at around 56% approval.

MNSure/Obamacare, on the other hand, was viewed unfavorably by 53% of likely voters. The Senate Office building was far underwater, with 64% disapproving.  The new gas tax favored by Dayton polled even worse, with 80% disapproving.

But instead of tying Dayton to these unpopular policies and making him own them, they repeated Dayton's excuse that he was "unaware" of these issues, and instead attacked him personally.

Johnson's campaign made the mistake of thinking Minnesota voters hated Mark Dayton as much as they obviously did, and lost because of it.

Failing to Attract Outside Money
There are those who wish to blame Johnson's loss on outside groups who failed to spend on his behalf. Those people have it backwards.  Outside groups have no obligation to make up for the deficiencies of a campaign.  On the contrary, it is the responsibility of the candidate and their staff to show outside groups that their campaign would be a good investment. 

Outside groups on the Republican side want to make good investments, not prop up a losing effort.  You can whine about this if you choose to, but it is much more effective to understand what motivates these groups, and what compels them to spend on your behalf.  Johnson's campaign chose the former course, not the latter.

Failing to Raise Enough Money
During the Primary Election, Johnson set a goal of raising a million dollars.  He missed that goal by about $800,000, but still pulled off a win, which many attribute to his party endorsement and the money spent on his behalf because of it.

After the Primary, Johnson's campaign manager told the Star Tribune that Johnson was not aiming to raise the full $4 million that he was allowed to spend, aiming instead for a "more modest" goal of around $2 million.  Johnson's staff later walked back that comment and said it would be more like $3 million- still a full million shy of the limit.  We don't know yet how much Johnson's campaign ultimately raised, but the report that covers through October 20 has him at just under the $2 million mark for the year.

Johnson's campaign simply did not raise enough money to compete in this race. It's hard to believe that he would have won the endorsement if he had been honest and conceded that he never had plans to raise the full amount allowable by law.

Focusing on the Wrong Issues
In a very telling interview during the State Fair, Johnson told MinnPost that one of the top things he wanted to focus on as Governor was the achievement gap in education, but nobody was bringing it up to him on the campaign trail.

In fact, though, I'm hard pressed to point out any issues that Johnson championed during his campaign, except for perhaps a four year multi-million dollar audit of state government.  I think it's safe to say this didn't come up at the Fair either.

Johnson's campaign never gave anybody a reason to vote "for" him and not just against Dayton, and in the end that wasn't enough to get the job done.

Standing for Nothing
In what was really the seminal post of this election, Michael Brodkorb uses a cup of coffee to illustrate Johnson's main shortcoming as a candidate- he didn't stand for anything.

Amazingly, even after the coffee dust-up, Johnson managed to flub the answer to "what's your favorite Halloween candy" - changing his answer to match Dayton's.

Really though, the coffee post at Politics.MN does a great job chronicling the flips and flops of the Johnson candidacy, including his changing positions on MNSure, Scrappy Fighter vs Nice Guy, the minimum wage, the Tea Party, and more.

Picking the Wrong LG Candidate
The selection of Bill "Who?" Kuisle left many people confused when the news first broke (including Kuisle himself), and reaction was almost universally negative outside the Johnson bubble.

Johnson's team broke with the long tradition of gender balance on the ticket, and instead selected a little know former legislator who had been out of the legislature for many years, and had lost his last few elections.

In the first few weeks after his selection, Kusile traveled across the state, putting his foot in his mouth at nearly every stop.  Johnson's campaign was forced to issue "corrections" about his running mate's comments on frac sand mining, and Highway 2, the latter of which caused Johnson's campaign to earn a stunning rebuke from a local newspaper.

The campaign eventually pulled Kuisle off the trail entirely, and then when he did rejoin the efforts, he was rarely left alone.

Johnson's campaign also refused to let Kuisle debate Dayton's LG pick Tina Smith, which, all things considered, was probably one of the better decisions they made.

Failing to Leverage Surrogates
Johnson already cut himself short one surrogate when he picked an LG candidate who couldn't be left to campaign alone, but he and his campaign also failed to make effective use of any surrogates.

Instead of working with the other statewide candidates to form a cohesive messaging strategy that could be delivered independently by anyone across the state, we were more likely to see (in blurry tweeted pictures) Johnson and other statewide candidates speaking to the same small groups of Republicans at the same time.

There were 5 Republican candidates for constitutional offices in Minnesota this year, and instead of building a cohesive team that could divide and conquer, we saw a disjointed and anemic effort by all of the candidates.  Johnson was fond of referring to himself as the "leader of the ticket," but showed no effort to actually lead.

Failing to Embrace Critics

If there was one thing that Johnson's campaign was consistent on from day one- it was their focus on lashing out at critics within their own party.

Critics play an important role in campaigns, and smart campaigns embrace them.  Johnson's campaign was not short on people who thought they were doing a great job, yet Johnson surrounded himself with people who told him what he wanted to hear.  The echo chamber benefits no-one.

Disbelieving the Polls
I thought Republicans had learned their lesson about Poll Trutherism in 2012. I was wrong.  The polls in this race were accurate.  The final SurveyUSA/KSTP poll showed Dayton 5 points up, and he won by 5.5.  Yet Johnson and his team were defiant about the polls to the bitter end.

In conclusion...
Each of the mistakes, missteps and missed opportunities listed above was well within the control of Johnson and his staff.  They made bad choices, and we have to live with the consequences.

This race was winnable; Republicans, led by Jeff Johnson and his staff, chose not to win it.