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Advice for Taming the Dog Days of Summer

by Jonathan Trichter and Susan Reefer, Jul 01, 2000
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From July Fourth until Labor Day, political campaigns usually shift strategies. With most voters tuned out, candidates normally concentrate on raising money for a costly media blitz after Labor Day. But this year's New York Senate race will be different. Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio should easily attract the necessary funds to drive their paid media efforts. They will also attract enough free media to fuel a high-octane summer battle. With both candidates polling more or less the same, in the mid-forties, Clinton and Lazio must use the summer months to their respective advantages. Here are some summer strategies for each candidate:

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For Clinton

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by Trichter

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For months now, Hillary Clinton has been stuck at around 45 percent in the polls. While she has near-total name recognition (92 percent of the electorate are familiar enough with Hillary to offer an opinion of her), she is also viewed unfavorably by 39 percent of that same electorate. (Fifty-three percent view her favorably) These numbers reveal that there are few voters still open to her candidacy. To go above fifty percent, then, the First Lady will have to work through the summer to accomplish three strategic objectives.

(1) Move the campaign dialogue toward policy, away from politics and personality:

Hillary has a natural advantage when it comes to education. Yet, her campaign has not completely claimed the issue as their raison d' etre. This summer, they should publish policy proposals and develop press events that highlight an education theme. The policy proposals don't even need to stand up to strict scrutiny (Bill Bradley's health care plan was roundly criticized in its details, but it defined the debate in this year's Democratic presidential primary). The press events should be bold enough to break through a cynical press corps and capture the imagination of voters, transforming her from a "political personality" to an "issues candidate."

(2) Attach herself to a New York cause:
The carpetbagger issue is a legitimate problem that has tainted Hillary's candidacy. The best way to deal with any legitimate negative is to contain it, as opposed to wasting credibility trying to overcome it. (Did anyone believe her when she said she was a Yankees fan?) To contain the carpetbagger negative, Hillary should devote some summer time to something other than campaigning. Saving a landmark in Schenectady or a park in Buffalo, say, could win her some street credibility. Attaching herself to a New York cause would do more to demonstrate Hillary's sincerity than a hundred campaign rallies.

(3) Define Rick Lazio before he defines himself:
Many voters are still unable to offer an opinion of the substitute candidate. Yet, the same polls measuring Lazio's obscurity also reveal a rapid ascension in his vote total. In the absence of candidate debates or significant ad campaigns, it is reasonable to conclude that the only thing voters have learned about Rick Lazio is that he isn't Hillary Clinton. (According to the most recent Marist Poll, only 43 percent of Rick Lazio's supporters say that their choice is based upon positive views of him.) Consequently, the Clinton campaign is facing a strategic imperative; they must define Rick Lazio unfavorably, highlighting his controversial voting record in Congress. This will raise Lazio's negatives and tarnish his campaign before it has fully begun. And remember the words of Lee Atwater: "He who defines first, defines last."

For Lazio

by Reefer

When he entered the race two months ago amidst the whirlwind of Mayor Giuliani's departure, Rick Lazio had to contend with a desperate Republican Party. With impressive efficiency, he assembled the campaign team, chartered the bus, and secured the requisite endorsements. This zero to sixty campaign acceleration has served to ease the minds of Republican Party stalwarts, but Lazio remains an unknown to most of the voters he courts (one recent poll had him at 24 percent name recognition). In order to garner more than just the Hillary haters, Lazio needs to fine-tune his strategy over the summer months.

(1) Run for Senate, not for a series of Congressional seats:
Campaigning in a state as large and diverse as New York is no easy task. Rather than focus on strategic targeting, which might dictate a tailored message to a regional audience, Rick Lazio needs to find an inclusive statewide message, beyond Native Son, that elevates him to the level of the office he seeks. Finding a theme that engages equally the attention of every voter may be a challenge, but it will be the difference between winning and losing the votes of those who look beyond party loyalty when determining their vote. Linking his campaign to a populist issue, whether campaign finance reform, privacy protection, or a Victims' Bill of Rights, will give voters something tangible to associate him with and move beyond the politics of the City vs. the Suburbs vs. Upstate.

(2) Run on His Record:
Rick Lazio has served well in the U.S. House (a missed vote here or there notwithstanding) and has an unimpressive list of legislative accomplishments. Mrs. Clinton has already demonstrated a strategy of using Lazio's voting record to paint him as a right-wing zealot; a charge which, fair or not, has the ability to scare off moderates. The best way to diffuse these attacks, and simultaneously paint a contrast with Hillary, is for Lazio to steal her thunder and talk about each issue in light of his work in Congress. He should, with reckless honesty, give an insiders' view: the role he played passing particular pieces of legislation, the work he did in conference committees, the deals he cut and what he wished to do differently. This "Real World" approach to running on one's record would have been unthinkable six years ago, but the electorate today has warmed to government experience in their candidates and voyeurism in their entertainment.

(3) Let it Go, Lazio:
As a practice, negative campaigning is tried and true. Hillary Clinton is already running ads attacking Lazio, and Lazio has shown his willingness to respond in kind. Lazio can, and surely will, question the First Lady's position on various issues, the source of her campaign funding, and her inexperience in elected office. But when it comes to the Clinton scandals and the carpetbagger charge, Lazio would be smart to leave it to the late night talk show hosts. While conventional wisdom dictates that Lazio take Hillary's biggest negative and repeat it (and repeat it) until it sticks, there is simply no one left in America who doesn't know Hillary is new to New York. These attacks carry no new information and they have the potential to get on the collective nerve of voters, most of whom must still decide whether they like this guy.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.




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