As an unathletic and uncoordinated sports fan, I identify with coaches, not players. I think about the strategy of the game, not its feats of physical derring-do. So it is with politics; yes, there are “natural” politicians, happy warriors by nature like Ed Rendell who seem to have a sixth sense about what voters want and how to connect. But mostly politics is about collecting electorate data — especially through public opinion polling — and shaping those results into a winning strategy.
That’s why the first thing that struck me after the twin bombshells from the Supreme Court last week was to wonder how much they’d change our politics moving forward.
In times of transformation, the party with more enthusiasm tends to own change. Now that six Republican-nominated justices have made it easier to brandish guns in public and had overturned a 50-year Constitutional right, would a reinvigorated liberal and centrist voting bloc emerge? Shouldn’t the Democrats be developing a messaging campaign that takes back the values of public safety and freedom from Republicans in the popular consciousness?
In times of transformation, the party with more enthusiasm tends to own change.
I put those and other questions to legendary political consultant Neil Oxman last week, after seeing the results of the AARP Pennsylvania poll, which track with the previously released Suffolk University poll. If you believe, as I do, that Pennsylvania is ground zero in the nonpartisan fight to preserve democracy, they are disconcerting results.
If you’ve followed Philadelphia politics lo, these last 40 years or so, you’ve heard of Neil Oxman. He’s the premier Democratic messaging guru behind a long list of boldface name candidates — including Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter, and countless congressional and gubernatorial wannabes throughout the nation. (Including a once-promising mayor of Cincinnati named … Jerry Springer.)
Oxman has long been a blustery, booming presence on the Philly scene, a fascinating mix of charisma, hair trigger outrage, and oceanic curiosity. He’s what was once called a renaissance man, a person of broad interests and knowledge. In addition to electing candidates nationwide, he’s a longtime caddy on the pro golf tour — for decades, he was right there alongside the legendary Tom Watson, which his friend, Thomas Friedman, recently noted in his New York Times column.
“It’s now 19 weeks until the election. If gas is still $5 a gallon then, the messaging won’t matter,” says Neil Oxman.
And Oxman is a noted movie aficionado, seeing, pre-Covid, almost 300 films in theaters a year. Every year, he appears on WHYY’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane to give his annual picks. He’s well-read, interested in everyone he meets, and given to fits of rage when his city — he’s a born and bred Philadelphian — shrinks from its potential.
We began by talking about the recent Supreme Court rulings. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Larry Platt: A few progressive friends were outraged by the Supreme Court rulings this week, but I told them it may be the only thing that could save the House and Senate for them in the midterm. Is my instinct right that the backlash could be the best chance for democrats to get competitive?
Neil Oxman: Certainly it will drive Democratic turnout to some extent. Democratic messaging will try to scare women about Roe v. Wade and the gun ruling will be icing on the cake. But it’s now 19 weeks until the election. If gas is still $5 a gallon then, the messaging won’t matter.
This is not a messaging problem for the Democrats. The AARP poll, like others we’ve been doing, shows that the right direction / wrong direction question, which is the question you always start with, is trending 78 percent wrong direction in the governor’s race and 84 percent wrong direction for the country.
That’s the stress test question for any campaign. And when it’s running five-to-one negative, that’s not a margin of error proposition. And the really bad news for Democrats is that the undecideds right now are breaking for Republicans.
I was shocked that, in that first poll, Shapiro was ahead of Mastriano by only four points. You taught me that winning candidates do three things: Define themselves, define their opponent, and define the stakes of the election. Since that first poll, Shapiro has been all over the airwaves with ads about Mastriano being a dangerous extremist. Is it working?
Well, he was up four, and now he’s up three, so not yet. As bad a candidate as Mastriano is, he’s consolidated Republican votes. And right now, independents are plus-18 in the governor’s race and plus-14 in the Senate election, which is why both races are close.
Those independent numbers are scary. This is why I’ve been so critical of the far left. The center wins general elections in Pennsylvania.
That’s right. Thirty years ago, independent voters made up two to four percent of the electorate. Now it’s 12 to 15 percent. If Republicans are winning them by double digits, you’re going to have a hard time.
And there is a messaging conclusion to be drawn from that, right? I mean, every time I hear AOC talking about defunding the police or pronouns, I say to myself, Democrats really know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Exactly! They’re too woke! What are they thinking? If you’re a blue collar guy, Black or White, every message you hear from D.C. just makes you hate these people. Even if you don’t work with your hands, it applies. Large parts of Bucks County have voters, men, who are white collar but they identify as working class — they grew up in North Philly and made it to Bucks County.
What’s happened is the margin of error has shrunk. Democrats have to win all four collar counties and the city by a 350,000 plurality, and that’s because the red part of the state has gotten so much redder.
If Shapiro asked you for advice, what would you tell him?
Look, he’s got to do what he’s been doing. He’s going to vastly outspend Mastriano, and he’ll have the money to run circles around the guy. He’s got to keep defining himself and let the independent expenditures define Mastriano. Remember, Democrats in the city underperformed in the primary. The Democrats will win in the suburban collar counties, but turnout has to be equal to registration in the city.
This is why [Democratic Party boss] Bob Brady has the power he has. He may not be that fond of Shapiro or even Fetterman, but I remember when he was producing 400,000 vote pluralities in Philly.
That’s the other question — even with an African American running mate, will Josh Shapiro do well enough with Black voters in, say, the 14th Ward? I don’t know. Every even numbered year since 2008, African American turnout has fallen. In 2016, if African American voters had voted in the city like they did in ’08 and ’12 with Obama on the ballot, Hillary would have won Pennsylvania by 50,000 votes. Instead, she lost by 57,000 votes.
We’ve talked about the governor’s race, but what about the Senate? I was surprised that Fetterman, who hasn’t even been campaigning, is up six against Oz.
That’s because I’ve never seen a candidate for governor or senate as underwater as Oz. McCormick did a good job of beating him up in the primary and he hasn’t been able to recover. But he’s keeping it close by getting Republican voters by 81 to 13.
I want to come back to something you said: that messaging doesn’t matter. You’re the messaging guru — isn’t there a way to persuade voters?
Messaging doesn’t matter when the right direction / wrong track numbers are what they are. Larry, when gas is $5.49 a gallon, what is there to say? I go out every morning and get my New York Post, Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and I buy a Tastykake. It was $1.79. It’s now $2.29.
You are so Philly.
I can afford it, but if you’re a guy out there filling up your gas tank, you’re saying to yourself inflation is killing me, no one has solved our border, my city had 562 murders last year. Did you see last weekend Biden administration officials were on all the Sunday shows and they were all on message: “A recession is not inevitable.” That was the line. Biden said it; Buttigieg said it. Okay, that’s what you think. Great. But I just had to spend 80 bucks to fill up my damn car!
“Democrats have to win all four collar counties and the city by a 350,000 plurality, and that’s because the red part of the state has gotten so much redder,” says Oxman.
Yes, we have record low unemployment, but your dollar doesn’t go very far. And remember, now 50 percent of the country has money in the stock market because of retirement funds. When the market drops from 36,000 to 30,000, people start wondering am I going to be okay?
Look, I know you don’t think the city is being run well enough. Well, how about the country? These guys have to do a better job of running things. Pete Buttigieg gives a great interview. But why doesn’t he go call up the National Guard to unload ships at our ports and take stuff to warehouses so we get to the end of this supply chain crap?
You and I have both bonded over the power and poetry of Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign …
I stuffed envelopes for it. But even my friend Thomas Friedman …
The New York Times columnist, who, I noticed, recently mentioned you in a column.
Yes, people I haven’t heard from in years reached out. But Tom once said to me about immigration, “Ox, when people come over to your house, don’t you think they should knock on your door first?” We don’t fix problems any more. There’s no messaging that can gloss over that.
So I’m getting from you that, yes, Roe and the right wing’s apparent war on public safety might help goose turnout, but things still look pretty bleak?
Messaging on Roe and public safety will help, and I think Shapiro — who has always had close general elections — will win in the single-digits. But if inflation stays where it is, it’s looking like a very bad year.
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MOST POPULAR RIGHT NOW ON THE CITIZENA gated Supreme Court, January 2021.Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons