How to win a swing state

Pat Toomey (left) and Joe Sestak: Their 2010 Senate race has lessons for the current presidential contenders. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Pat Toomey (left) and Joe Sestak: Their 2010 Senate race has lessons for the current presidential contenders. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Posted: August 09, 2012

By Harold I. Gullan

Much about the compelling 2010 race for one of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seats could inform both of the current presidential campaigns. Among its lessons:

Define your opponent: Republican Pat Toomey, the eventual winner, successfully did so. By investing much of his advertising budget early, Toomey branded Democratic nominee Joe Sestak as "too liberal" for Pennsylvania before Sestak could brand Toomey as "too conservative," putting Sestak on the defensive.

The Obama camp is following that strategy now. But branding Mitt Romney as a heartless elitist who specialized in sending jobs overseas isn't quite current or clear enough. Moreover, Romney's supporters will bombard the airwaves this fall with a media blitz the Democrats can't match.

Keep it simple: There was and is only one issue: jobs. But it's clear that all that will move out of Washington between now and November are authorizations of more drones, so specific proposals won't help.

In 2010, Toomey said less government would lead to more jobs; Sestak said more government would lead to more jobs. Romney is stressing that his business experience will help create more jobs; Obama, that he could create jobs if only those Republicans would cooperate. Place your bets.

Be consistent: Independents will decide the outcome, and they're more interested in demeanor than ideology.

By changing his identity from the "true Democrat" who won a remarkable primary victory over the incumbent, Arlen Specter, to the nonpolitical, pragmatic Navy officer who ran against Toomey, Sestak gave himself enough of a split personality to lose the general election. Independents like consistency, and Toomey exhibited a calmly consistent demeanor throughout. He won by two percentage points - likely the kind of margin that will determine the next president in November.

So how can Romney succeed? Beyond not telling jokes or saying "golly," by stressing the straight GOP ticket. All he needs is a few more Republican senators, and he would have both houses of Congress; a President Romney would also enjoy a generally favorable Supreme Court. This represents just about our only opportunity to emerge from partisan gridlock and get anything substantive done during the next four years.

The Democrats can't do it. For them, taking back the House this year is a virtual impossibility.

How can Obama win? Beyond not laughing at his own jokes or saying "folks," by keeping Bill Clinton off the campaign trail. No one could do that in 2010, when the irrepressible Clinton kept stressing that two years wasn't enough to judge Obama's performance given the mess he had inherited - suggesting voters should throw out the incumbent now that there has been no significant recovery after four years. Of course, in politics, such unwise pronouncements can fade from memory fast.

After Labor Day, we're more likely to see the contenders indicting themselves without any help from supporters: video of Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts, and even more of when he was running against Ted Kennedy for Senate; video of Obama trying to explain (or avoid explaining) the job figures. One of the most devastating 30-second commercials in the history of political advertising had Arlen Specter, smiling like a canary-consuming cat, saying, "My change in party will enable me to be reelected," after which a voice-over intoned, "Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job: his."

It was, of course, out of context and not quite fair. But it represents our political reality in 2012 just as in 2010.

Harold I. Gullan is a Philadelphia historian and the author of "Toomey's Triumph" and the forthcoming "Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the 'Scumbags.' "

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