The Webb/Allen race initially came to prominent national attention when, in August of this year, Republican Senator George Allen referred to a Webb staffer of Indian descent as “Macaca” and the Webb campaign placed video of the incident on YouTube. Some have said that Allen lost the campaign because of a series of missteps that began with this incident.
While that’s true to some extent, that’s not really what made Allen vulnerable. In fact, we always believed Allen was vulnerable for two reasons: despite being well liked, his Senate record was not well established and, more importantly, he was failing to articulate a message about the leadership he would bring to bear on the challenges facing the country.
Democrat Jim Webb decided to run for the U.S. Senate when he concluded that Allen was not providing leadership on the challenges the nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia face. Throughout the campaign, Webb’s strategy focused primarily on describing how he would do just that, and this strategy was not materially affected by the Macaca or other subsequent incidents.
In contrast, the Allen campaign—perhaps not appreciating the weakness of their position—ran a campaign that focused on attacking Webb and did not address the central leadership question of the campaign.
Well Liked, But Not Strongly Supported
Back in February, before Webb had officially announced his candidacy, my own statewide survey had support for Allen at 49%, while Webb had 28%. At the time 59% were favorable to Allen, but as we saw throughout the campaign, his favorable ratings consistently ran higher than his ballot support.
This was remarkable. Allen had been in public office for most of the past quarter century and was not getting over 50% support against an unknown challenger.
By June, after Webb won the Democratic primary, Allen had only a 7% advantage over Webb (46% to 39%). Even though 61% were favorable toward Allen, just 51% gave him a positive job rating (“excellent” or “good”), and 36% gave President Bush a positive job rating. Additionally, when we asked voters what concerned them the most about Allen, it was the idea that he was bored in the Senate and not addressing the challenges the nation is facing. Later in the campaign in focus groups a typical exchange would occur—even those who described Allen as a good senator drew a blank when asked why they believed this. From the June survey it was clear that many voters were dissatisfied with the direction of the country and did not have a clear picture of what Allen had been doing in the U.S. Senate.
This was most true in the Washington, D.C., media market. This market makes up a third of the electorate and has been undergoing rapid change over the past decade, with rapid growth in key counties such as Fairfax, Prince William and Loudon. As a result, Fairfax County, the largest county in the commonwealth, has steadily shifted from a swing area to a Democratic county. And Loudon and Prince William counties have more recently shifted from reliably Republican to swing regions, starting with Governor Kaine’s victory in 2005 and continuing through Webb’s victory in both counties this year.
Before we conducted the June 2006 survey, Allen had already spent approximately a million dollars on ads designed to re-introduce him to Northern Virginia voters. Despite this, in June 2006 Webb and Allen were statistically tied in the inner counties of the Washington, D.C., media market. These counties represent almost one-fifth of the Virginia electorate. In the end, Webb won the inner counties by over 25% and won the entire media market by 11%.
Stay the Course?
Another important consideration was that in the beginning of the campaign Allen did not appear to take Webb seriously. He was still traveling to presidential primary and caucus states and taking positions on issues like the war in Iraq that were better suited to a Republican primary than a Virginia general election, which meant that in a year when voters desired change, Allen was talking about “staying the course.” As a result, we concluded Allen was vulnerable because he did not have a clearly defined identity as someone who was either willing or able to provide the leadership needed to change the course of the national policies that were frustrating voters.
We had found in Governor Kaine’s race in 2005 that voters were looking for leaders who were willing to work across party lines to address the challenges we face in this country and in our daily lives. Allen’s campaign ultimately never made a case that he would provide this kind of leadership.
Webb entered the race saying that he was running for three reasons: to strengthen and reprioritize our national defenses, to make economic policies more fair to families, and to make Congress hold the Bush Administration more accountable for its policies and ensure that the Administration did not overstep its constitutional authority. Because Allen was vulnerable primarily because he was not providing the leadership and new direction voters were looking for, we believed we would win this by highlighting the clear leadership Webb offered. Our initial and significant challenge was that we didn’t have enough money to mount that kind of campaign and were facing the almost certain situation that, once Allen was done introducing himself to voters, he was likely to turn to negative ads about Webb.
Why the Election Began To Turn
On August 11th, the Macaca incident occurred. It had some impact on the dynamics of the race and set back Allen’s attempt to reintroduce himself to voters in the Washington, D.C., media market but it did not create the conditions that would enable Webb to win. Between June and mid-September, the ballot closed from a 7-point Allen lead to a 4-point lead.
During this period there was also improvement in awareness of Webb and a small decline in Allen’s standing. As the table below shows, a month after Macaca, Allen’s favorable ratings had declined slightly (from 61% to 57%) but, more importantly, Webb’s favorability had risen by 6 points and his name ID (the percentage of voters who knew him well enough to rate him) had risen by 14 points.
Candidate Favorability Ratings
|Favorable %||Unfavorable %||Favorable %||Unfavorable %|
Additionally, during this period, Allen’s job approval rating declined from 51% in June to 49% in September.
The Macaca incident was well known: 74% of voters were aware of it, and 60% of these said it made them less favorable toward Allen (even though his favorable ratings did not reflect an actual decline of this size) but, despite all of the attention the incident received, most voters did not consider it a serious matter. For instance, a majority said it was “pretty insignificant,” while one-third said it provided insights into Allen’s character.
Views of the Macaca Incident
|“Which is closer to your view? . . .”||%|
|“The incident provided some important insights into Senator Allen's character”||34|
|“This was a pretty insignificant incident that the media treated like it was something significant”||52|
In the Democratic primary we did not have enough money to run television ads or conduct polls. In the general election we fretted over whether or not we could win without being able to afford ads in the Washington media market, where a reasonably high-level ad buy costs about $1 million a week.
To take advantage of the new attention given to Webb and to attract the support of the national Democratic Party, we launched our initial media buy on September 7. The ad—which was about Webb’s prior service in the Reagan Administration—was launched after a great deal of discussion about whether we could afford it, even though it only cost $140,000 and did not air in more than half the state. Fortunately for us the Allen campaign attacked the ad, leading to coverage and exposure of the ad on statewide and national news programs.
Meet the Candidates
While the Macaca incident and the ad raised the profile of the race, the event that really changed the dynamics of the race occurred when the candidates debated on Meet the Press on September 17th. Once that aired, donations began to flow to the campaign as people across the country concluded that Webb was a viable alternative to Allen.
In addition, the next day the candidates debated again at the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and Allen lost the day by getting mired in a debate about what he knew about his family’s heritage and when he knew it. It looked like Allen was hoping to use the debate to catch Webb off-guard but instead the opposite happened. Webb looked capable and level-headed while Allen looked defensive and evasive. After these two debates, Webb’s fundraising took off.
In addition, when we polled again in late September after the debates, Webb’s standing had improved further and Allen’s had declined.
Candidate Favorability Ratings
|Favorable %||Unfavorable %||Favorable %||Unfavorable %||Favorable %||Unfavorable %|
Allen’s job approval ratings continued to slip. By late September the electorate was divided evenly between those who gave him a positive (excellent or good) or negative (fair or poor) rating.
Sen. Allen — Job Approval Rating
|Favorable %||Unfavorable %|
Our ability to make the positive case for Webb’s leadership was delayed because, after the dual debates, the Allen campaign attacked Webb with ads in which women said that an article Webb wrote in the 1970s had harmed them. We decided to rebut this ad and a subsequent attack ad on the issue of taxes, which meant the first statewide positive ad about Webb did not air until the first week of October. By this time the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had gone up on the air as well and was effectively tying Allen to President Bush’s priorities in Washington.
The initial Webb ad told his story: his service, his family’s Virginia roots, and his priorities. The story was told by Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor, who narrated the ad and appeared at the end of the spot. One week after airing, the ballot finally flipped to a narrow Webb advantage. (All of the Webb ads were produced by David Smith and Susan DiLiddo Michels of GMMB.)
In the last week we faced an important choice—whether to rebut the final attack ads Allen was airing that were critical of the content of Webb’s novels or to put all of our resources into positive ads. Webb decided to take on the issue raised in Allen’s ads in a speech in which he defended his integrity and writing career (“you can attack my politics but don’t mess with my faith or my character”)—a speech that galvanized the audience and presaged a surge in attendance at subsequent campaign events.
At this time the Allen campaign and the independent Republican Party ads were almost totally negative, but the literature attacks appeared to be backfiring. That enabled us to stay with an entirely positive message for the last week and close the campaign with ads that showed Webb’s press endorsements and the enthusiasm he was generating during the campaign.
Most importantly, most of our money went into a simple spot in which Webb spoke directly into the camera and explained why he was running for the U.S. Senate. It was the spot the entire campaign was designed to lead up to and, in the end, both this ad and the news coverage Webb was generating by campaigning throughout the state with well-regarded Democrats such as Governor Kaine and former governors Wilder and Warner was enough to show voters that Webb would provide the change they wanted to see in the country on both defense and economic policies. In the end, Webb’s favorability increased throughout October, while Allen’s fell and finally dipped below 50% in the final tracking.