'How Obama Lost America,' winning the Senate vs. winning the White House, and brand problems

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - It’s Election Eve so we’ll stay smack-dab inside the Beltway, unapologetically.

Ross Douthat, the conservative writer at The New York Times, has a column that is getting admiring attention from conservatives. No surprise with a headline like “How Obama Lost America.”

Obama, his approval ratings in the tank, has been a huge drag on the Democratic ticket. Yet he won the presidential election handily only two years ago.

The interesting question is why. You may recall that Mitt Romney built his entire 2012 campaign strategy around the assumption that a terrible economy would suffice to deny Barack Obama a second term. Yet throughout 2012, with the unemployment rate still up around 8 percent, Obama’s approval numbers stayed high enough (the mid-to-upper 40s) to ultimately win. Whereas today the unemployment rate has fallen to 6 percent, a number Team Obama would have traded David Axelrod’s right kidney for two years ago, but the White House hasn’t benefited: The public’s confidence is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back.

Douthat offers four explanations, none satisfying on its own: Republican obstructionism, the enduring unpopularity of Obamacare, economic pessimism and a string of foreign policy crises ineptly handled.

The Times also ran a piece conservatives have been trashing. Nate Cohen argues that even if the GOP wins the Senate, the close margins in many of the races in red states would suggest, “Republicans have made little progress in attracting voters they would need to take back the White House.”

The gist of his argument is familiar: To win the White House, Republicans must do better with women, minorities and young voters.  They can win back the Senate without doing that. Why? Because by luck of the draw, most of the close races this year are in Republican-leaning states and because Republicans turnout in midterms is heavier than among the Democrats best groups -- women, minorities and young voters. 

This is precisely the argument made, interestingly, by two Republican pollsters in Sunday’s Washington Post. Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse write that nothing in this election so far has helped the GOP outside of red states and outside their core constituencies. And that isn’t good enough to win a presidential election because the states with the most electoral voters, apart from Texas, aren’t that red – New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

[RELATED: Republicans favored, but extra innings possible]

One other person is hammering away at this to anyone who will listen: Rand Paul. 

Last week, Paul declared that the Republican brand “sucks.” On Sunday, Paul made the rounds of the Washington talk shows to hammer home the point. “The things the (Republican) senator from Kentucky criticized his party for: “dumb” voter ID laws, a “broken” party brand, and a “wall” between it and African-Americans,” the Atlantic noted.

Speaking of brands that suck, Steven Pearlstein, an economics writer at the Post, thinks that the Democrats also have a brand problem.  But their mistake was running away from their brand by running away from Obama; that muddled their message, undermined their accomplishments and forged no positive message. Smart businesses do the opposite, even when they are in trouble.

What’s true for companies also applies to political parties. And from that standpoint, the performance of the Obama White House and his party’s congressional candidates has largely been a case study in how to destroy brand equity: Democratic candidates begging the Democratic president not to campaign for them and, in one memorable instance, refusing even to say whether she voted for him. The president and candidates rarely mentioning, let alone defending, their landmark health reform legislation. Party leaders pleading with the president not to take executive actions on immigration or climate change before the election. A Democratic Senate willing to put off action on urgent or popular issues out of fear that Republicans will force tough votes on controversial amendments.

Now, on the eve of the election, Democratic candidates find themselves caught in a vicious cycle in which their refusal to embrace and defend their party’s brand is discouraging the faithful and turning away the undecided, threatening their election prospects still further. What Benjamin Franklin said of revolutions also applies to political campaigns: Those who don’t hang together will surely hang separately.

Next week, we’ll go from pre-mortems to post-mortems.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Politics vs. race?]

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