Harry Reid: Withstanding the Wave
by Mark Mellman & Jim Margolis
prognosticators, strategists and seers all said it couldn’t be done.
Incumbents who garner positive ratings from fewer than four in ten voters
and who post double-digit deficits in match-ups against opponents (in public
polls) are not supposed to win—and they usually don’t. In fact, combing
through the history of polling it is hard to find someone other than Senator
Harry Reid who accomplished that feat.
Three prime factors
account for this history-making result:
1. Senator Reid is a
unique leader who spent decades fighting—and winning—for his state.
2. Reid put together
perhaps the best Senate campaign operation ever.
3. Reid empowered a
skilled team to devise a methodical campaign plan, long before the
election, and the candidate and the team stuck to the plan, despite the
naysayers and public pollsters who said the race couldn’t be won.
Setting the Scene
As election 2010 approached, Nevada faced desperate economic straits. At
nearly 14.5%, unemployment was the highest in the state’s history and the
highest in the nation. In the desert state of Nevada, some 60% of homeowners
were underwater, holding mortgages that exceeded the value of their homes.
Nearly half the electorate said their family was worse off economically than
it had been a couple of years before and over half worried that they
themselves, or a close relative, would have their home seized.
Such massive economic
dislocation spells trouble for the party in power. Just 45% approved of the
President’s performance and, in contrast to the rest of the country,
slightly more voters harbored negative feelings about Democrats than about
Republicans. While voters expressed intense hostility toward Congress as an
institution, because of his position as Senate leader, Reid was precluded
from running as an outsider.
Finally, while Reid
has served Nevada for decades, the state’s explosive growth brought tens of
thousands of new voters to the polls who knew very little about the Senator,
his background or his accomplishments. His last competitive race was in 1998
against John Ensign, in which he prevailed narrowly. In ’04, Reid’s opponent
never passed the credibility threshold in a Senate race that was also
overshadowed by the presidential contest. In short, some two-thirds of the
2010 electorate was new to Nevada since Harry Reid ran his last serious
race, and that one, by his own admission, was not executed well. Instead of
defining himself for voters between elections, that task was left to the
press including the virulently anti-Reid Las Vegas Review-Journal,
the state’s largest newspaper, whose commitment to defeating the Leader has
been evident not just on its editorial page but in its supposed “news”
coverage as well.
Given his apparent vulnerability, a number of Republicans sought the
opportunity to take on Leader Reid. Understanding Reid’s appeal and his
tenacity better than the pundits, the state’s strongest GOP officeholder,
Congressman Dean Heller, passed up the race—unwilling to risk his career on
what he obviously considered a long shot. With Heller out, the primary
seemed like a contest between basketball scion Danny Tarkanian and former
newscaster and former Republican state chair Sue Lowden.
Tarkanian never caught
on, while Lowden foolishly suggested Americans barter chickens for health
care services. Yes, bring a chicken to the doctor the next time you need a
check-up she told Nevadans. The always effective Reid press operation put a
national spotlight on her inane comments which became a staple of late night
comedy routines. As a result, conservative former state legislator and Tea
Party leader Sharron Angle won the nomination with 40% of the vote to 26%
speculating about whether one of the other primary contenders would have
proved a more formidable general election candidate. While we can never know
for sure what would have happened, what is certain is that these other
candidates never made it to the finals, thereby demonstrating considerable
weakness. Indeed, Lowden lost the primary not because of ideological
impurity, but because voters concluded her health care buffoonery rendered
her unacceptable and unelectable.
Although Leader Reid was notoriously suspicious of polling and voter
research generally, by agreement of the campaign team, the Reid effort was
data driven—from message development to ad testing to targeting to
evaluation to GOTV. After a series of focus groups and polls, and well
before the GOP primary, we presented a strategy to the team focused around
a tough race regardless of our opponent.
Democrats, independents, moderates and Latinos are key to victory.
need to know that as majority leader, Reid uses his clout for Nevada, that
he sees the world through their eyes and that no one can do more for
Nevada than he can.
our positive message is important, we cannot allow this contest to be a
referendum on Harry Reid—disqualifying our opponent must be a central
component of our efforts. This election must be a choice for Nevada
voters and the candidates must be evaluated against each other.
media is the most important tool with sufficient power to alter the outcome
of this race.
out our voters by establishing a world-class ground operation will be vital
While some cast a
dismissive eye at the GOP field, our team never did. Our research made clear
that the economic and political environments were such that anyone who
emerged from the Republican primary posed a real threat. At no point did any
member of the team take Reid’s reelection for granted; no one relaxed,
ever. That attitude kindled a relentless focus on setting and achieving
goals—a focus which never waned—and a recognition that every decision could
be a win/lose moment that needed to be treated accordingly.
Goal setting extended
to every facet of our work. Instead of merely looking at crosstabs that
enabled us to say we were doing well or less well, better or worse among one
group or another, we used historical election data (actual returns and exit
polls) to devise vote goals for some two dozen subgroups. Each poll enabled
to us to measure our progress toward these goals within each voter segment.
Early on it became clear that four segments—Democrats, independents,
moderates and Latinos—would prove critical to our success. At the outset,
Senator Reid was far behind goal with each of these groups and specific
tactics were employed to improve and cement his standing with each.
For example, based on
a micro-targeting model, the campaign identified those independents most
likely to move toward us, and Mike Muir, of Ambrosino, Muir & Hansen, used
early mail to reinforce our TV messages with those select independents.
Careful analysis revealed that those who received the mail were in fact
moving to a greater degree than others, so the mail program was continued
beyond its original expiration date. Later on, we used data from repeat
contacts in polls and phone canvasses to model not just undecided voters but
true persuadables—those whose vote intention actually changed over the
course of the campaign.
Latinos, too, were a
particular focus of attention. Several key insights emerged from a special
poll of Latino voters which informed campaign activities. First, Spanish
dominant Hispanics were even more likely than their English dominant
brethren to support Senator Reid. Thus, we knew that monolingual polls of
Latinos were much too conservative in stating the level of support for
Senator Reid in this community. Second, we learned that while Hispanics (the
label they preferred) were committed to immigration reform, economy/jobs and
education issues were even more important to them. Finally, we determined
that the anti-Latino demagoguery of our opponent, and of Republicans in
general, was a powerful motivator for these voters. Again, all these lessons
were integrated into the campaign’s advertising, field, political and
Later in the campaign
another critical segment was added to this list: defecting Republicans, who
came primarily from the ranks of liberal and moderate GOPers. We went into
the race assuming an electorate about evenly divided between Republicans and
Democrats. If each candidate consolidated his/her base to the same extent,
winning independents was the only way to emerge victorious. While Senator
Reid earned the backing of almost every Democrat, a victory with
independents afforded a nerve-rackingly narrow path to victory. After our
first assault on Angle, we noted that she had not consolidated her partisans
to the same extent Senator Reid had. Peeling off even a narrow slice of
Republicans afforded the campaign a margin of safety and hence, generating
Republican defections became a central imperative.
Reid had built strong relationships with key Republicans throughout the
state. Other members of the GOP were simply frightened to death of Sharron
Angle. Former Reagan aide and leading Republican Sig Rogich had developed a
close relationship with the Senator and joined the effort early. The
Republican mayor of Reno publicly added his voice in the fall, as did the
Republican leader of the State Senate, the former head of the Clark County
Republican Party, the former Republican sheriff of Clark County, and former
RNC chair Frank Farenkopf. In addition, a number of Republican business
leaders, well aware of what Reid has meant for economic development in
Nevada, also joined the cause.
Some of these
Republicans were used creatively in late television and radio advertisements
not only to legitimize and reassure Republican voters who wanted to defect
from their party, but also to fortify independents who were conflicted about
the candidates, all while they delivered a credible, counter-to-type message
about the danger of electing Angle.
Moving Nevadans into
Senator Reid’s corner required a positive message that met voters where they
were. Given the state’s desperate economic condition, it was impossible to
say "Senator Reid is solving all your problems," but it was credible
to argue that he is focused on the problems voters are confronting and that
no one—absolutely no one—is better able to help the state than the majority
leader of the Senate.
Thus, our positive
message had to make clear that whatever doubts, concerns or questions voters
had, they would be losing something important if they fired Harry Reid.
Merely asserting that, however, was worse than inadequate.
Jennifer Granholm’s 2006 reelection campaign in recession wracked Michigan,
The Mellman Group team faced an analogous situation in which they learned
some key lessons. First, tense is important—arguing that good things have
happened is not credible; suggesting that they will happen
is believable. Second, big numbers or broad sweeping assertions don’t work,
while individual stories of accomplishments do connect.
With these lessons in
mind, the creative team at GMMB developed a series of future oriented ads
around Reid’s influence and effectiveness that were then tested. What
emerged from a long process was the notion that “no one can do more for
Nevada”—an ambiguously tensed line that did not elicit counter arguments
because it built on voters’ preexisting attitudes. Support for the theme was
provided by a series of stories powerfully told through the eyes of
individuals who had been affected by Reid’s efforts: a veteran who could get
treatment in Las Vegas instead of driving to San Diego because Reid had
gotten a veterans hospital built in Las Vegas; a worker whose job (and those
of 22,000 others) at a major casino construction project was saved because
Reid talked banks into extending loans; individuals who were working in the
new clean energy industry which Reid is building in Nevada.
Just Too Extreme
As important as the positive message would prove to be in providing a
backstop and rationale for Reid supporters, it was clear from the data that
in this toxic environment we could not sustain an up or down referendum on
Harry Reid. Disqualifying our opponent was central to our strategy. Having
studied Democratic failures in Massachusetts and New Jersey during 2009, we
concluded that once challengers picked up a head of steam in this climate,
stopping them was exponentially more difficult. We therefore resolved to
begin to define our opponent immediately after the primary. To that end we
tested arguments against each of our potential adversaries in polling before
the primary and developed a “first line of attack” against each.
Thus, when Sharron
Angle emerged victorious from the primary, we were immediately on the air
with a devastating attack highlighting her view that Social Security and
Medicare should be wiped out.
assessed which arguments (uncovered by an amazing opposition research team)
would prove most compelling to voters. Then, under an umbrella frame that
“Sharron Angle was just too extreme,” the general election campaign was
GMMB quickly produced
a whole package of spots which were then tested, yielding another important
lesson: Voters doubted anybody could be quite as
crazy as we said Angle was. Spots that included Angle speaking in her own
words proved most effective because they overcame these doubts. This finding
was incorporated into most of the subsequent ads, which frequently featured
Angle herself on video or audio tape (provided by our fearless trackers)
stating her outrageous and extreme positions.
Showcasing her belief
that Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Education and the Veterans
Administration should be abolished combined to push Angle far out of the
mainstream. As a result, her unfavorable ratings skyrocketed, jumping to
52%, up 32 points between March and August.
As we moved into the
fall, the foundation had been laid to take Angle’s “extreme”
positions to a new level: dangerous. In short, electing Sharron Angle would
have real consequences for the electorate.
In part that meant
paid advertising and earned media highlighting Angle’s vote against criminal
background checks for those who work with children, and her vote against
requiring insurance companies to cover breast and colon cancer tests. But we
also moved the message directly to the economy, the area toward which Angle
had been directing most of her firepower, trying to blame the world-wide
recession on President Obama and Senator Reid (needless to say an argument
with its own serious credibility problems). Earlier Angle had said she would
not have taken action to save the troubled City Center project in Las Vegas,
and its 22,000 jobs—action Reid successfully took, allowing the nation’s
largest private development to open.
We used Angle’s
videotaped comments repeatedly in ads making the case that she wouldn’t
solve the economic crisis, she would make it worse. We also ratcheted up the
tenor of our attack by putting Republican business leaders on camera (and on
radio) saying bluntly that electing Sharron Angle would cost Nevada jobs. In
a state where unemployment topped 15% on Election Day, that was a grave
By the time voters
cast ballots, Angles unfavorables were over 55% and Senator Reid’s net
favorables were 10 points stronger than Angle’s. Team Reid had been
successful in making the race a choice that was at least as much
about Angle as it was about Reid.
The final strategic
imperative we identified arose from the fact that consistent voters were
less likely to support Reid than those with inconsistent voting records.
Therefore insuring that our supporters actually cast ballots was vitally
important, and Senator Reid’s campaign responded to the challenge by
building the most effective turnout operation ever constructed for a Senate
contest. It was a beauty to behold, devised and implemented by two of the
most impressive campaign professionals we have ever worked with, campaign
manager Brandon Hall and veteran Nevada strategist Rebecca Lamb (who oversaw
every aspect of the campaign and were backed by an incredible team of
communications, field and GOTV experts).
By the beginning of
the early vote period the Reid campaign was in the process of meeting all
its core strategic goals, giving the Senator a comfortable, better than
5-point win, despite predictions that his political career was coming to an
The presumption that Reid was unelectable rested on a series
of public polls, nearly all of which showed Reid behind Angle. Indeed, in
October alone the Nevada press reported on 14 surveys, only one of which
showed Leader Reid ahead. Using models based in part on these polls, The
New York Times’ Nate Silver gave Reid less than a one in six chance of
Lots of excuses have
been offered for the inaccuracy of the public polls, from margin of error,
to late shifts in the race and under-sampling Latinos. It should be clear
that it was far from impossible to get this race “right.” As an article in
the Las Vegas Sun headlined “How
Harry Reid’s Pollster Got It Right” explained, our internal
polling predicted the outcome exactly.
The public polls in
Nevada were wrong because their methodology was fundamentally flawed. We
were able to reproduce results close to those of the public polls by
replicating those flaws and measuring the impact. Three core problems
afflicted the public polls in Nevada:
CNN/Time poll which gave Reid an 11-point lead among registered voters—a
fact you’d be hard-pressed to unearth in the panoply of press generated by
this survey—offers some data on the problem. Analysts focused on “likely
voters,” and among those designated likely to vote by CNN/Time, opponent
Sharron Angle eked out a 2-point advantage.
likely and less likely voters is a complex task which some pollsters get
wrong. For example, they may rely on self-reported enthusiasm to
differentiate likely from less likely voters, despite the fact that research
has demonstrated no link between enthusiasm and individual level of turnout.
Even if a researcher
surmounts that problem, a steeper hurdle remains. Calling someone a “likely”
voter is to make a probability statement. A likely voter may have, say, an
80% chance of turning out, while a “less likely voter” may have only a 20%
chance of casting a ballot. In that scenario, 20 of every 100 likely voters
will not show up, while 20 of every 100 less likely voters will. No real
electorate is composed exclusively of “likely voters.” In Nevada’s early
vote alone, over 30% of those who cast ballots were not consistent voters.
arithmetic impact. If just 30% of the Nevada electorate was composed of
“less likely voters,” Reid would have held a nearly 8-point
lead in the Time/CNN poll—much closer to the eventual result.
Polling only the
Some people are harder to reach on the phone than others. Good pollsters go
to great lengths to secure a completed interview with the respondent
originally identified at random, while cheap, quickie polls survey the
respondents who are easiest to reach. Willy-nilly substitution produces not
a random sample, but rather a sample of easy-to-reach voters, who may differ
from others. Lo and behold, they are different. At one point Senator Reid
led by just 2 points among those interviewed on
the first or second attempt, but by 9 points among
harder-to-reach respondents who required three or more calls.
like those produced by Rasmussen, are precluded by law from calling cell
phones. At one stage Reid led by 19 points among
those reached on cell phones, but was nearly tied among those reached on
As a result of these
methodological shortcomings, many public polls contributed to a net loss of
knowledge about this race.
After the election one account of the race suggested the win was “lucky.” In
fact nothing could be further from the truth. Senator Reid recognized the
headwinds he was confronting long before November 2nd. He was
determined to tell his story and make sure voters knew the choice before
them. He then empowered an amazing campaign staff that brought management
skill, press savvy, astonishing fundraising expertise and a breathtaking
ground game to work each day.
While we made errors
to be sure, a dedication to research and a willingness to stick to our paid
media plan ultimately combined to prove many pundits wrong and re-elect one
of our nation’s most important leaders.
The Reid effort was
many things. But the one thing it wasn’t was lucky.
Copyright © 2010 POLLING REPORT, INC.