An unaccustomed error

images“I am not on the ballot this fall.  Michelle’s pretty happy about that.  But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot.  Every single one of them.”

Oh dear.

The problem with these words from the president is that the Senate elections in November will be decided in states where the president and those policies are unpopular. The last thing that David Pryor or Mary Landrieu – struggling, but not dead yet, in Arkansas and Louisiana respectively – wants voters to think is that they are running on President Obama’s policies. They have spent all year denying just that. But let’s leave aside the three states (Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota) which Democrats have already conceded. Let’s even assume that Arkansas and Louisiana are gone. The next tier states are still in territory where Democrats do not want to be branded with President Obama’s policies. The president was heavily defeated in Alaska in 2012, and that is looking like a tossup right now. Democrats are rooting for an independent in Kansas, who certainly doesn’t want voters thinking that the president’s policies – every single one of them – are on the ballot. 

In North Carolina, incumbent Democrat, Kay Hagan, has been narrowly leading in polls. She will not welcome voters thinking that the president’s policies are on the ballot. Even in states that narrowly voted to re-elect the president in 2012 – Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire and Michigan – he is now less popular and, given the more conservative tilt of mid-term voters, likely to be a net drag on the Democratic ticket. If Democrats simply concede all the states that rejected the president’s policies in 2012 then that’s seven gains for the GOP – one more than the party needs to take control of the Senate. And this badly judged sentence really sounds like the president conceding those states. 

In the past, badly judged words from Barack Obama – think here of the promise that if you like your insurance plan you can keep it – had a short term benefit as well as a long term cost. That was a politician postponing political pain, perhaps in the optimistic belief that his policies would prove so popular it wouldn’t matter later on. 

This is a very different situation. The president’s words are already being recycled in Republican ads. Greg Orman (Independent) in Kansas and Kay Hagan in North Carolina were actively favored to win, but certainly will not if voters see the election as a referendum on the president’s policies. Other Democrats, such as Mark Begich in Alaska, could easily be tipped from a tossup to an uphill struggle by ads which highlight these words. 

While this president’s policy errors have been legion, it is difficult to think of political errors as stark as this. The man who set out a carefully targeted plan to upset the Clinton juggernaut and who told aides – campaign strategists, speechwriters, etc. – that he could do the job of every one of them better than they could has made a fundamental political slip. It will certainly cost his party votes next month, and could well cost several seats in a closely divided Senate. 

Oh dear. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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