Campaigns are about choice and distinctions between candidates, and in the CD4, both Democrat Doug Owens and Republican Mia Love have done a great job, jointly, in defining the choice without discussing a single specific issue.
With my campaign consultant hat on, I see this as a brilliant move by both campaigns. Love is running away from her own 2012 Tea Party campaign, and Owens is running away from national Democratic Party positions, much like Jim Matheson did. Both are strategically good moves for the respective campaigns.
The first debate in May kicked off with Owens out swinging as a moderate, contrasting himself with the Mia Love of 2012, her rah-rahing the government shutdown, and her calls to end the Department of Education. Love tried to take the high road, but it looked like a dodge. Love campaign manager was in front of every camera after, clutching his pearls, aghast at how “inappropriate” Owens’ “attacks” were. Brilliant, if not believable. We’ve got a race, my inner consultant thought. Both candidates wrapped up promising to “let the issues speak for themselves.”
Fast forward to the final debate last week. Love is putting Owens on the defensive over a comment he made about LDS values and his positions compared to hers. Democrats are rolling their eyes at his one, considering how often GOP candidates have been willing to wink-wink, nudge-nudge this same statement in reverse into campaign after campaign. But it’s smart politics by Love’s campaign, and the first time they get any traction with their “personal attacks” theme all cycle. Owens later still has Love on the defensive over things she said in 2012, saying basically the same things he brought up in the May debate.
The campaign strategy highlights for both have been serendipitous. TV ads running with Love saying her position on education is being represented, followed by a Tide commercial, followed by a Owens ad with the video of her saying what she says she didn’t say. Scoreboard, Owens. Love’s “positive” theme coupled with campaign staff lamenting the “tone” of Owens’ “attacks? Scoreboard, Love.
Campaign consultant hat off, voter hat on, what does all of this leave them saying to the average voter, and the coveted (and possibly existent?) independent voter in Utah’s still relatively new fourth congressional district?
Not much really.
This isn’t so much a knock on either candidate, but modern campaigns and our apparent tolerance as voters for fluff masquerading as ideas. Doug Owens is probably one of the most viable candidates Utah Democrats have fielded in a congressional race in over a decade. Mia Love 2014 is sounding much more like a serious congressional candidate than Mia Love 2012. And there is a benefit to voters and turnout even outside the district when a race is this competitive.
But they aren’t really saying anything. Not in their ads, not in 90 second debate responses, not even on their websites. Exhibits:
- Health Care: Mia Love will repeal Obamacare? Great, won’t ever happen. She’ll replace it with…? Obamacare plus health savings accounts, basically. Super. Why? Owens is married to a pediatrician and thinks Obamacare was hastily passed, needs fixin’. Super. How?
- Education: Both Owens and Love hate, hate, hate federal bureaucrats because focus groups poop in their pants when they hear it three times. They both love local decisions. Owens supports federal aid to make college affordable, Love wants colleges competing for students. Super. Why is college so expensive? Hello? Hellooooooo?
- Congressional Gridlock: Both candidates are the first person ever to discover the secret is both sides working together.
- Jobs: Love wants to reduce deficits, reform tax code for corporations, and repeal laws (apparently arbitrarily). Owens wants all of that to, plus investing in education. Love cuts and pastes from the GOP platform, Owens cuts and pastes from the GOP platform and adds a bit about education to remind Democrats he is one (you can see how they’d forget).
- Energy: Love would drill baby drill and kick green energy lobbyists in the teeth because Solyndra. Owens would drill baby drill, too, but occasionally have lunch with a green energy lobbyist.
Vapid. Empty. Cookie-cutter issues positions more useful as cute bumper stickers than an informed electorate. And apparently effective.
This really isn’t a knock against either individual candidate (okay, a little knock at Love… I’m still holding a grudge for that “de-fund the libraries” KCPW interview that made anyone listening dumber).
The fourth district race has been feisty, and competitive and miles above districts one, two, and three for interest and engagement. You’ll see higher turnout here than any other federal race in Utah this year. That’s a good thing. It’s also nice for Democrats to experience the occasional competitive race. Maybe they’ll decide to do it outside of Salt Lake County more often?
But as for understanding the issues concerning voters and choice of solutions the candidates offer, the Love/Owens race hasn’t raised any content or wonky discussion bars. Maybe voters don’t care or even want it raised. Or maybe campaign consultants are just perpetuating that mindset and voters don’t have a choice.
Either way, without a more intelligent discussion of issues, campaign strategy is all that matters in the end. This race won’t be decided by who won the war of ideas, because there was none. This race will be decided tomorrow by which campaign more effectively convinced voters their opponent was the worse choice.