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Can a positive message work?

Monday, Aug 4, 2014

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

Gov. Pat Quinn’s new TV ad is 60 seconds of one positive message after another.

“Pat Quinn sees problems, takes action and gets the job done,” the ad claims. “Now, Illinois is making a comeback,” it continues.

But the spot is being slammed by longtime campaign insiders in both parties as “spitting in the wind.”

For instance, a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll in June found that a mere 30 percent of Illinoisans thought the state was on the right track, while a a very strong 60 percent majority thought Illinois was on the wrong track.

And an infamous poll taken by Gallup in April found that 50 percent of Illinoisans would move to a different state if given the chance. We were first in the country on that response, according to Gallup. Just 25 percent of Minnesotans, by contrast, felt the same way.

In other words, a positive TV ad campaign is not very likely to change many minds. Way too many people simply hate the way things are going here.

Instead, Democratic critics have been arguing behind the scenes to abandon positivity in the very near future and launch a full-on, brutal assault against Bruce Rauner as soon as possible. And quite a few experienced Republican operatives were scratching their heads at the ad, saying they highly doubted it would move any numbers at all.

The Quinn campaign obviously tested that initial message with focus groups and polling. So, hey, maybe they’re right. But when’s the last time you heard someone say they were proud to live in this state or that things were really starting to turn around?

Meanwhile, the Quinn folks are reportedly hoping to drive up turnout by more than 200,000 votes with the non-binding minimum wage referendum this fall, which asks voters if they support a $10 per hour minimum wage.

That turnout projection has long caused much consternation behind the scenes among people who believe it’s entirely unrealistic. What the Quinnsters are hoping to do has never been done before, critics point out. The Quinn campaign’s projections rely heavily on a record off-year turnout, even though the national and state headwinds are rapidly nearing hurricane force levels and Democratic interest is quite low.

Democrats are hoping to spend as much as $5 million on the minimum wage project to drive otherwise non-motivated “base” voters to go to the polls. US Sen. Dick Durbin’s campaign is reportedly in full agreement and pressure from both Durbin and Quinn has for now forced the Chicago City Council to delay a vote on its own $13 minimum wage ordinance. The cold calculation was that a $13 per hour ordinance passed in September would undermine the Democrats’ $10 per hour efforts in the fall campaign.

On the other side of the fence, Bruce Rauner’s campaign has calculated a more than 300,000 voter turnout increase just to be on the safe side. After Rauner’s unexpectedly narrow GOP primary win (despite internal Rauner polls showing the candidate with a well over twenty-point lead), the Republicans want to be extra sure that they plan for every possible contingency.

To some Democrats, that Rauner internal turnout projection validates their theory of a turnout spike. They believe that early voting, same day registration and other new “tools” will assist them in reaching their goal.

To others, it’s just smart politics by Rauner and overly dangerous optimism by Quinn. In other words, if the spike happens, Rauner will have prepared himself. If it doesn’t happen, Quinn is likely toast.

At least in public, however, Rauner is making some pretty darned inflated claims himself. He reportedly told a group of African-American small businessmen last week that he will get 28 percent of the black vote in Chicago - something that hasn’t been done there in a very long time.

But he’s certainly trying hard. ABC 7’s Charles Thomas reported last week that Rauner committed at that same meeting with black small businessmen to deposit $1 million of his own personal money into a Chicago credit union to be used for small business loans.

The Rauner campaign confirmed the story with Thomas, calling the pledge “one of many steps Bruce will take to reinvigorate our communities that have suffered under the failed policies and broken commitments of politicians.”

That “one of many” phrase has got to send chills up the Quinn campaign’s collective spine.

- Posted by Rich Miller        


18 Comments
  1. - Gooner - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 9:34 am:

    I’ve spent a lot of time bashing Quinn (both as Gov. and as a candidate) but I give him a lot of credit for this.

    A good campaign of any kind — election, military, trial — is going to be fought on grounds that one side chooses.

    Don’t like the turf? Choose a different place to wage the battle. Don’t like the issues in the campaign? Then keep talking about your issues.

    Sure, many people think Illinois is headed in the wrong direction, and to be honest, I’m one of them. But if Gov. Quinn repeatedly claims that the state is going in the right direction, I suspect the message is going to help him. People will start to believe it over time.

    Do I think this is enough to sway the election? No way. But it sure can help and I give them credit for making the effort to change the discussion.


  2. - wordslinger - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 9:35 am:

    I suspect both sides will be all negative here on out. The Quinn crew, I guess, felt they had to kick off with a positive intro spot. I doubt if we’ll see much more of it.


  3. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 9:41 am:

    Great column, gets to the crux of Quinn’s problems.

    I had thought about this during the weekend, and going through possible numbers, what struck me as the Quinn sweet spot has to come from these two areas;

    Bruce Rauner shortly before the Primary had 10% negatives going into Election Day and the push by those who “know” Bruce Rauner and organized in 6 weeks moved 17 points on Election Day.

    I can not..can not understand… why hammering and shaking the real Bruce Rauner is not the avenue for success?

    Those two areas melding together had the most impact on Rauner and victory than any positive message by the “2″ or “Fiasco Friday Guy”. Those 3 refused to go toe-to-toe, sorry, couldn’t go toe-to-toe, because Rauner sucked the oxygen and cash out of all of them. It was the Unions that understood the negatives, especially and specifically against Rauner, that will move the needle, and get voters to vote against… against…Rauner.

    The negatives of Quinn are going to be hammered home these 90+ days. The complete education of Rauner, with the ground game to back up and reinforce the “lesser of two evils” …is… the winning formula.

    This could be described as “nice guy finishes last, the lesser of two evil guy gets to be called ‘Governor’ come November.”

    Rauner’s negatives need to rise, and quick, and to be rallied around to defeat him. Every day the education fails, is a great day for Rauner’s Crew. It’s a waste, utter waste to go positive, when it’s Rauner’s negatives will move numbers far, far, better.


  4. - Grandson of Man - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 10:10 am:

    I’m one of the people who want Quinn to go positive.

    We see lots of criticism here and elsewhere. It’s so easy to criticize, but when we’re called forth to provide plans, some of us have bad ideas or just keep up the criticism instead of providing plans.

    Illinois was in rotten shape when Quinn took over. He passed pension reform that should have appeased those on the right who wanted it, but are they grateful? It doesn’t seem like they are.

    We are paying down our bill backlog. Our economic recovery is slow but is progressing. We have two viable pension reform laws in place–Tier 2 and the city pensions. The third law is in court and may ultimately not stand.

    The 2011 income tax increase did help our finances. We now also have medical marijuana coming next year, SSM legalization and Medicaid expansion. Those are big accomplishments, in my opinion.

    I think that part of the problem is us, and it is evident in some of the comments and polling results. We can’t turn the state completely around in a just a few years, but we’re very impatient, and we often have bad ideas or no ideas at all.


  5. - VanillaMan - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 10:29 am:

    This was the election year that voters needed to hear a positive message about the guy they elected last time into office. They needed to know that they made the right choice. They needed to know that their guy was doing his best.

    This is Quinn’s reelection. He is the incumbent. He already won once. He was to build on the votes he won before, then expand. He needed to do that in order to win reelection.

    Voters are in a bad mood. They don’t want to hear more bad. Negative campaign ads will not be welcomed by voters in this campaign. They are already ticked off. Those ticked off voters are voting for change. Telling these voters that the guy representing change this time around sucks more than the incumbent, won’t persuade this time around.

    When the electorate is in a foul mood, incumbents need to put them in a better mood. You do this with good positive ads. Show the incumbent surrounded by happy children. Show the incumbent smiling and pointing to our future. Show the incumbent in charge. Voters want to vote for someone.

    This is what I have been posting here since March. Quinn is losing because he hasn’t been doing this. Those pushing for negative attack ads are wrong. 2014 is not the year for Quinn to do little but try and demolish Rauner.

    Quinn is governor already. Rauner can’t win if Quinn convinces the same voters who voted him in last time that they were right in 2010. Rauner can’t win if Quinn convinces voters that things are getting better. This is Quinn’s election to lose.


  6. - walker - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 10:40 am:

    Standard practice to launch an attacking campaign after a couple of positive ads. You can then say you were driven to it by your opponent’s attacks.


  7. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 10:46 am:

    ===Quinn is governor already. Rauner can’t win if Quinn convinces the same voters who voted him in last time that they were right in 2010. Rauner can’t win if Quinn convinces voters that things are getting better. This is Quinn’s election to lose.===

    It’s not a referendum, no matter how you try to type it differently.

    The lesser of two evils, buys into the foul mood, and which of the negative points will be helpful to attack the other.

    It’s not an “up or down” on Quinn, it’s about which of these two are the least worst.

    The rest you reinforce your false premise is more wishful thinking than anything else.


  8. - A guy... - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 10:49 am:

    A positive message does occasionally work. This isn’t such an occasion. There’s just not enough to work with. All those few positives mentioned by others point to a huge negative; a tax increase and the potential for even higher property taxes with a shift coming down the pipe. See a straw…grasp.


  9. - RNUG - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 11:08 am:

    Actually glad to see a positive ad. The candidates need to tell us why we should like them. And, even though I;m not a Quinn fan, I did note the other day he does have a lot of small victories to talk about.

    Is Illinois in great shape? No, but it actually is in better shape than it was 4 years ago. Gievn all the non-stop negativity the past years, it might be hard to convince the voters … but it is incrementally better.

    As far as the 50% would move opinion, I’m not surprised. I’m sure the non-stop negative news stores are part of what is driving the sentiment.


  10. - Soccermom - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 12:19 pm:

    I think it’s harder to make a positive ad “stick.” What are some positive ads that stand out in your memory? (Beyond PQ’s “you know me” ad in the 2010 primary, which was lovely.)


  11. - steve schnorf - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 12:23 pm:

    Mom, “Morning in America”


  12. - Soccermom - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 12:29 pm:

    that was a long time ago, Steve.


  13. - wordslinger - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 12:40 pm:

    Schnorf, Soccermom, I’d say Jodi Ernst’s spot this year where she cheerfully recalls her experiences “slashing pork” on the family farm was nearly perfect for an Iowa statewide GOP primary. A home run for memorability, that’s for sure.


  14. - Soccermom - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 12:56 pm:

    Yeah, Word — I was thinking about Sean Duffy’s spots as well. I wasn’t sure whether they exactly count as “positive,” since they’re focused on “cleaning up the mess.” But similar notions, and tailored to the electorate.


  15. - steve schnorf - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 2:45 pm:

    Mom, which means it really stuck in my mind


  16. - persecuted - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 3:24 pm:

    To Rich and all that read and comment here and to the candidates, I would like to apologize for last statement. That was uncalled for. I should always write things down on paper and not put on line until I’ve thought it over for a couple of hours. Again, I’m sorry.


  17. - Precinct Captain - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 3:34 pm:

    ==- Soccermom - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 12:19 pm:=

    PQ had two really good “you know me” ads in 2010, one in the primary and one in the general.


  18. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Monday, Aug 4, 14 @ 4:16 pm:

    It is not the ad, it is the theme.

    Yes we can!

    Bridge to the 21st Century.

    Look, I will defend Quinn here.

    They feel like their drowning, throw your voters a lifesaver to hold onto, THEN fire your torpedoes at the enemy ship.

    Or, look at this way:

    If you feel your voters stampeding, you gotta build a corral before you try to round them back up.

    Plus,they haven’t really done enough damage yet with the earned media to try to amplify any particular attack.

    Will it get negative? Yeah. 9 homes, five tax shelters in the Caribbean, and a Red Sox team owner?

    Nine homes is eight more than most Illinoisans will own in their lifetimes.

    Maybe it’s time for Rauner to start dropping some cash on the homeless.


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