Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Amy Walter, August 16, 2013
It's no fun being an incumbent these days. There's the gridlock. The partisanship. The fact that Americans think more highly of athlete's foot than they do a Member of Congress. In fact, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans would, if they could, vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including their own representative.

To be sure, gerrymandering and a series of wave elections have helped to weed out most of the truly vulnerable incumbents in the House. Even so, there's going to be a lot of firepower aimed at knocking off a small number of incumbents. So, how does that incumbent convince his/her constituents to re-hire them?

I posed that question to some of the smartest Democratic and Republican pollsters and media consultants in town. Specifically, I wanted to know if scorched earth style negative ads have worn out their usefulness at a time of deep-seeded frustration and cynicism about Washington. Generic attacks on "Obamacare" and the "Ryan budget" seem worn and dated. Perhaps, I asked, it was time for a more "all politics is local" approach that helped to distance an incumbent from the dysfunction of DC.

Most consultants (but not all) agreed that negative ads have lost their punch, but they didn't think that an "all politics is local" approach was the way to go either. Instead, the campaigns should be something of a hybrid between nationalization and localization.

Based on those conversations, as well as my own analysis and interpretation, here are two key strategies for incumbents to follow in 2014.

1. Accept That Congress Is Unpopular--Work With It, Not Against It

As incumbent, you own Washington. Trying to convince voters that you are there to change the place is a Sisyphean task.

Voters don't believe that Washington is capable of making things better, but they could be convinced that you are not going to make things worse. As one Democratic consultant said, "what swing voters want is just for DC not to screw it up any more."

A cynical and disillusioned electorate may be tired of the status quo, but the word "change" sure doesn't carry the positive connotation it once did, either. Voters have thrown out the incumbent party in three of the last four elections. Instead of making things better, it's only created a more polarized and dysfunctional place. That makes it a bit easier for an incumbent to try to undercut the "time for change" message of his/her opponent with the argument that this change is only going to make things worse.

2. If You Talk Local, Talk Job Creation--Not "Bringing Home The Bacon"

There was a time when the best thing an incumbent could offer as a rationale for his/her re-election was that he/she delivered something tangible for the district. A bridge. An interchange. A fancy new government facility. Now, of course, earmarks and pork are signs of wasteful spending and the source of are national deficit.

"It is easy for Democrats to get tripped up by that [bring home the bacon] approach, especially the incumbents" said one Democratic pollster who is heavily involved in House races. "They say something like, I know how much we need that bridge to quell traffic and so I fought to make sure it got repaved and will stand for 50 more years. The rebuttal is the wasted $220M in government contracts to cronies or donors or whatever. A local focus is tough without talking about spending. If you are in a middle of the road district, that becomes a hard sell."

Instead, said another Democratic consultant, the "right localized message is jobs. Most battleground districts are still hurting badly. so, if you've got a local jobs story, tell it. Don't do an ad or two though, it has to be the whole story, you have to stay with it."

The jobs advice applies to Republicans as well. Check out this spot, produced by Something Else Strategies, for NRCC Chairman Greg Walden in his 2012 re-election campaign. Although he talks about his role in creating the "Broadband Jobs Law'" the setting is his eastern Oregon district, not DC. The new 3/4G technology, said Walden, will help "create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next 10 years," while also providing needed cell service to rural Oregon. The tag line: When Oregon Calls, Walden Delivers.

Despite their many advantages - name ID, money and experience - incumbents can't escape the fact that much of what will drive the 2014 election is out of their control. The economy. The president's approval ratings. International incidents. But, at this point, it looks as if we are in something of a "wash" environment. President Obama has middling to poor ratings, but the GOP brand is even more tainted. The economy is no longer in the toilet, but it's not going gangbusters either. This puts more pressure than ever on individual candidates and campaigns to run smart, sophisticated campaigns that meet voters where they are today, instead of relying on what has worked in the past.