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How A Democrat Won in Kentucky
Andy Beshear’s media strategist explains how, while Politico says we won't listen
Last week, our Office Hours featured David Eichenbaum, the media strategist for Governor Andy Beshear’s re-election. David discussed with us how to win Red states, how to fight back against Republican misinformation, why values drive winning campaigns and how Democrats can improve their margins with GOP voters.
We provided some context on David last week: the admaker to overperformers is a father to WelcomePAC - as an inspiration from his work with candidates who win swing voters, intellectually in his approach, and also somewhat more literally: he introduced the founders to one another.
His expertise is also an inspiration for action: why can’t more Democratic campaigns do this well? A Politico headline sounded the pessimistic tone days after, announcing “Embrace the Andy Beshear moment. It won’t last.”
Let’s prove them wrong. It will last if we listen, learn, and act together as part of a stronger center-left faction.
The second half of our discussion with David was off-the-record, so register now to join our next Office Hours to hear the full conversation - Wednesday November 29th at 12pm with the Blueprint pollster who showed that voters are hearing Biden’s unpopular policies, but not his popular policies.
Below is an abridged transcript of our discussion, edited for clarity.
Red to Pink
We began with a discussion of the Beshear campaign’s “Red to Pink” strategy, persuasion and mobilization more generally and how to message a statewide campaign.
The victory last week can be explained quite simply: we won big in the Democratic areas where we were supposed to win, but we overperformed everywhere compared to the last election. Four years ago, when we were running against Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, we won by 5,000 votes total, half a percentage point. This time we won by five points. Our strategy was specifically to lose by less in those very red areas.
People are used to looking at maps in the United States and seeing a sea of red with little dots of blue, because Democrats are so concentrated in cities. It doesn't look like that in Kentucky. There are now some big patches of blue in a bunch of these rural counties.
We executed our “red to pink” strategies on multiple levels across multiple mediums, with a focus on localizing the campaign, even on television. It's hard to localize on TV, particularly in broadcast, but we ran multiple versions of TV ads that were customized for different regions and media markets around Kentucky.
Persuasion Versus Mobilization
There's always this debate between, do you focus on your base and turnout? Or do you focus on persuasion and swing voters? To me, it’s a false choice, we need to do both and we can do both.
But to people who say “ignore persuasion”: if we're running in swing states and in swing districts, and we're not trying to persuade hard to get voters, how do we expect to win? We fundamentally have to persuade swing voters, but in a place like Kentucky, we had to convince Republicans, not just swing voters, we had to convince voters who voted for Trump to vote for us. We knew we were never going to win a majority of them, we knew we were never going to win half of them. But we knew we had to win a decent percentage of them. Our strategy for the general election was focused on them.
When we did research, we focused on them. And when we did advertising, we focused on them. We didn't have a different message for center-right voters than we had for center-left or further left voters, we had one message. We don’t say different things to different people or constituencies. There are basic values and basic issues that folks across the political spectrum share. And you can construct a message and a strategy that talks to everybody.
Persuading Non-College Whites
Winning rural, non-college white states is difficult, but it’s about caring about people and their values. A perfect example is the first ad we ran for Senator Joe Manchin during his re-election campaign in 2018. It was shot at a memorial to coal miners who were killed in an explosion many years before, and Manchin had lost friends and family in that explosion, but the ad wasn't really about him. It was about hard working people just trying to make a living. But it connected Joe in a very emotional way with those people, with his people, with the people of West Virginia. And he's been able to overperform all these years because he cares about his people and it shows.
In Kentucky this year, we ran an ad called “Jim.” Jim is a Republican small businessman, and in this ad he gave Andy credit for creating jobs. And Kentucky is doing – it's booming really – but people don't necessarily feel it. But this Republican small businessman giving Andy credit for creating jobs was valuable in and of itself, but it wasn't as important as him saying that he didn't support Andy four years ago, but was voting for him this time. So the economic argument was more of a vehicle for the message that it's okay to be a Republican and support Andy.
Beshear managed to overperform extreme partisanship by caring and showing up and being empathetic. People believe that Andy is doing what he thinks is right for the state, even if they disagree with him on issues. We don’t have to win most Republicans, but we have to win some Republicans, and that means we have to connect with them and tell these stories. Whether it's a Republican small businessman whose business is flourishing because of Andy Beshear, or because of Andy's policies, and because he's bringing jobs into the state and companies into the state.
So finding those stories, finding those messengers, to tell those stories, and finding the right balance between Andy telling his own story, or any candidate telling their own story, and having other validators tell their own stories as well, that complement what we're talking about.
Issues Are Viewed Through The Lens of Character
Eichenbaum explained his view that elections are determined by voters’ views of a politician's character and that issues are fundamentally understood through that lens.
When I think about the media coverage of our campaign, I find they cherry pick the story that they want to tell. I don’t necessarily think it’s the wrong story, but I think there is far more nuance and I think the story is deeply incomplete. What I find the most frustrating thing about coverage overall is that it’s focused on things that aren't the real drivers of campaigns.
Campaigns are about character and issues are tied to what voters believe about character. In Kentucky, for instance, it's not wrong to say that Beshear benefits from a good economy. The thing is that many Kentuckians don't think the economy is as good as it actually is. Either these voters aren’t feeling the benefits or they feel the economic anxiety which colors their opinion. So the economy alone can’t explain Andy’s strength.
We told the economic story, but we've got to put meat on the bones. And in a campaign, the bones are our values and character, not issues. The bones are the intangibles that connect people together. When I help construct a poll, I'm always more focused on the questions that get at character and values, because ultimately that is what drives voters' choice. The issues are validators for what we’ve established about the candidate’s character.
But every now and then an issue becomes a powerful motivator in and of itself, which is what we are seeing with abortion right now. We ran a very powerful ad on abortion against [Beshear’s Republican opponent, Attorney General] Daniel Cameron, but if people didn't already like and trust Andy, abortion wouldn't have made the difference. The fact that they already connected with him on a values level meant that we can make that attack on a values issue and benefit from it. Some analyses suggest that we won because of abortion, but that’s not true. Abortion was a story in our race, but it wasn't the story. The story was Andy’s values and character, and they connected to that issue of abortion.
Combatting Republican Misinformation
Andy had the immense advantage of being a Governor because people are living with you for four years. When you’re running for re-election, assuming that you've been a good governor, you have a huge advantage. When you combine that with someone who is naturally empathetic, deeply cares about people and basically treats the families of the Commonwealth like his own family, that helps immensely when you run for reelection, and you just need to build on that.
We were hammered for months over charges that Andy Beshear favors sex change operations for minors. This is part of a broader attack against Democrats on transgender rights that started with Glenn Youngkin, back in 2021. We countered those attacks exactly one time. Andy said to the camera that all children are children of God. Why did that work?
The ad worked because it’s what he believes. And it worked because we had set that up already with other ads earlier on, where we had established his faith. Not in a hit people over the head kind of way, but naturally, in the context of a story about the church where his grandfather and great-grandfather were preachers, and which was destroyed by the tornadoes. That church was rebuilt, as were many homes, businesses and lives. The ad worked because Andy had already spent his time as Governor showing that empathy and showing that care and showing up. That allowed us to say that my faith teaches me that all children are children of God. And push back on that argument. Without that credibility, he would have just vetoed a bill, which was extreme, but we wouldn’t have been able to explain it. When we have the credibility, we were able to push back. My mantra is keep it real, find stories that get to who the candidate is, and that connect to people so that they can see themselves as part of that story.
When you are responding to attacks, preparation is so important and understanding what you need to respond to and what you can ignore, and not letting the things that you believe you can ignore get in the way of telling your own story.
Crafting Ads That Work
Eichenbaum also discussed his perspective as a practitioner, on the rise of the use of testing in ads and how to customize a message without changing it.
For ads to be effective, you need to tell a story. Ultimately what political campaigns do is we tell stories and if you don't have a good story to tell, then you're going to underperform. If your campaign focuses on issues first and you don't have that connective tissue with values and character, you are going to underperform because you just are not going to connect with people.
In a state like Kentucky, when we're trying to overcome these deep partisan headwinds and win over swing voters in hard-to-win areas for Democrats, we need that to forge those connections. Because we can’t overcome headwinds without those connections.
A mentor of mine taught me that ads work on multiple levels. Television, digital, these are visual mediums, so often the story you show is more important than the story that you tell. The most important thing is to tell emotionally resonant stories that connect with people and highlight the values and elements of character that we want to convey.
Let’s talk about what that looks like for Andy Beshear. For Andy it starts with his faith. But his faith alone isn't enough, it needs to connect to something tangible for people. For Andy, we connected his faith with his empathy and his care for Kentuckians and we exemplified that by the way he shows up in their communities in the aftermath of natural disasters. We won the extremism argument, particularly on abortion, because by the time we went on that attack, Andy’s values had been firmly communicated and embedded not only through our advertising, but through his own actions as governor over four years. That is how we take character, we connect with something tangible and then it shows up in issues and creates a victory.
Testing content is an issue of balance. It’s so easy to rely on these metrics and to over-test. Too often, I think campaigns look at ads and other content as one-offs. Campaigns will look at a poll and see that something is a top-testing issue and want to run an ad on that issue without necessarily connecting it to anything else. But a campaign needs to tell a story, and each ad needs to connect to the others to form a mosaic, where it all fits together and each ad furthers the story.
Testing positive ads that are trying to just tell a story are less useful than testing negative ads to ensure you're not going to get blowback from an ad, particularly very emotionally powerful negative ads. In the campaign, we ran one ad in particular, an extraordinarily powerful and emotional ad carried by a young woman who had been raped by her stepfather. We tested that ad to ensure we did not create backlash.
The best use of ad testing is exchanges, to ensure you are responding as strongly as possible. You test the negative ad, and then test a couple of different response ads to that to make sure that you are responding the best way that you can.
Customize the Message but Don’t Change It
When we try to segment so much, I think that we overthink things too much and our messages lose some power. A candidate shouldn't go around saying different things to different people. We should be consistent, because that’s part of building a brand: repetition and consistency and acting on the values that candidates own, that are important to demonstrate. We showed different versions of ads in different parts of the state, but those were focusing on specifics. If we were talking about infrastructure for instance, in the Cincinnati media market, we would highlight the Brent Spence Bridge. The Brent Spence Bridge is a bridge connecting Kentucky with Ohio, and it's been falling apart. It’s a big deal in that region, so we incorporated that into our message in the Cincinnati media market. When we're talking about Beshear showing up, helping rebuild and comforting people after a natural disaster, that message was the same all over the state. But in Western Kentucky, we talked about tornadoes, and in Eastern Kentucky we talked about floods. So we customize the message, but the message didn't change.