Democratic statewide candidates need sharper rhetoric

Joe Gorton: “Fred Hubbell’s campaign for governor is the most recent example of a candidacy that failed to couple a strong emotional tone to strong content.” -promoted by Laura Belin

For the third consecutive time, Iowa Democrats are licking our wounds after a gubernatorial campaign loss. Not surprisingly, there are many competing explanations for what went wrong. Within those explanations one factor is largely ignored: dull campaign rhetoric.

After twenty years of observing Iowa politics, its clear that many Iowa Democrats do not appreciate the value of sharp emotional rhetoric. To paraphrase Sun Tsu’s insight on the role of strategy and tactics: substance without emotionally charged rhetoric is the slowest route to victory, emotionally charged rhetoric without substance is the noise before defeat.

Despite this reality, substance dominates the campaign messages of Iowa Democratic candidates. For Democrats to win statewide races, our candidates will have to use sharper rhetoric to drive their points home.

Fred Hubbell’s campaign for governor is the most recent example of a candidacy that failed to couple a strong emotional tone to strong content. It is one reason we lost a statewide race Democrats should have won.

The content of Hubbell’s message was right on target. He focused on his leadership record, the Medicaid debacle, education and Iowa’s mental health crisis. In addition, he frequently criticized Reynolds positions on these issues. Unfortunately, the campaign failed to drive the substance of his campaign with highly charged emotional rhetoric.

Those who doubt the importance of sharp campaign rhetoric would be well served to examine the winning gubernatorial campaign of Wisconsin Democrat Tony Evers.

Early in the election cycle, few experts gave Evers, a former state school superintendent, much chance of defeating the heavily funded two-term incumbent Scott Walker. The Wisconsin Democrat outperformed those expectations because his media team understood how to use sharp emotional rhetoric to inflict serious damage to his opponent’s campaign.

Evers’ media consultants knew that to achieve victory, the substance of their message required highly charged rhetoric aimed directly at their powerful opponent. From the very beginning, a key element in Evers’ message was that Walker was a politician of selfish and unsavory ambition. Through television commercials and statements delivered on the campaign trail, the Evers team relentlessly reinforced their message that Walker was liar who cared more about himself and his big money donors than he did about Wisconsin families. Here are some examples:


“Scott Walker and the Special Interests”:

“Tony Evers will always put the safety of our children first”:

“Every Kid”:


Beyond the Midwest is another excellent example of how emotionally intense rhetoric helped a major statewide Democratic candidate outperform expectations. Representative Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign in Texas was a textbook example of how to use television, social media, debates and the campaign trail to fearlessly attack a wealthy and powerful statewide Republican incumbent. Here is an October ad O’Rourke used to blast Senator Ted Cruz for “selling fear and paranoia.”

As someone who ran two statewide campaigns in Texas, I regard O’Rourke’s 2.6 percent deficit against an incumbent Republican U.S. senator as a near miracle. The outcome is more remarkable when one recalls Beto’s strong stance on behalf of NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem. In Texas, that position is tantamount to embracing a statue of Karl Marx. Unlike Iowa’s nominee for governor, Beto put the fear of God into his opponent’s campaign.

In contrast to the Evers and O’Rourke campaigns, Iowa’s Democratic statewide candidates seem gripped by a fear that going negative will turn voters off. That assessment requires a simplistic and overwrought misunderstanding of so called negative campaigning.

I’m frequently amazed by how many political activists do not understand that negative campaign messages exist on a continuum. The intensity of emotional rhetoric used to attack a political opponent varies from very weak (barely annoys an opponent, easily ignored) to overly aggressive (so harsh as to backfire).

One reason for the outcomes achieved by Evers and Beto is that both campaigns hit the sweet spot on that continuum. Both put their opponents on the defensive with unapologetically aggressive messages that were not crass or uncivil. By contrast, Iowa’s statewide Democratic candidates are usually at the weaker end of this continuum. The Hubbell campaign exemplified this problem.

It’s widely agreed Hubbell’s two Medicaid ads, (“Tammy” and “Tucker”) were his campaign’s most effective TV spots. [Editor’s note: those videos are no longer available online, but you can read the transcripts at the end of this post.]

To be sure, these were attack ads. However, in both instances the emotional content was too weak to move voter sentiment against the incumbent. Unlike Evers’ ads which evoked voters’ anger and mistrust toward Walker, the predominant emotion elicited by Hubbell’s Medicaid advertisements was sadness. I’ve never met a political media consultant who believes relying on voters’ sadness is an effective way to win a campaign.

It’s understandable why neophyte statewide campaigns are hesitant to deliver intense rhetorical messaging. After all, some research shows negative messaging can be a risky tactic. However, most of that research does not control for emotional intensity of the rhetoric (i.e, weak vs strong), political context, campaign resources, quality of polling data, and other important variables. Political scientists notwithstanding, the most successful campaign consultants know it can be foolish to not deploy emotionally charged rhetoric against one’s opponent.

Though they were not statewide races, the victories of Democratic Congressional candidates Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne are additional cases in point. Both used highly charged emotional rhetoric against their incumbent Republican opponents. While this was not the only reason for their victories, both candidates could have easily lost if their messaging had been driven by the emotional tone used by the Hubbell campaign.

Everyone knew that to achieve a general election victory, Hubbell needed to win a significant percent of rural votes. Unfortunately, the urgency of this objective failed to find its way into his campaign’s messaging and rhetoric. The campaign would have been better served by talking and running tv ads about the real dangers facing rural Iowans. The campaign could have highlighted the loss of support for rural schools, health care and local businesses. They could have placed emotionally compelling ads showing rural voters (preferably Republicans) angry at Reynolds for harming their children’s futures and reducing access to health care.

There were other lost opportunities to hurt the Reynolds campaign at an emotional level. Recent studies and media reports have presented data showing relatively high rates of suicide among farmers. A skilled political media consultant could have used those tragedies to hit Reynolds for being out of touch with the life and death struggles of many rural Iowans.

How hard would it have been to attack Reynolds for not standing up to protect Iowa’s family farmers from China’s retaliatory tariffs? Skilled media consultants could have easily created hard hitting ads in all or some of these areas. The Hubbell ads should have been similar to Evers’ messaging about Scott Walker (an overly ambitious political more concerned about certain donors than Iowa families). I’m willing to bet a sum of money the Reynolds’ media people expected strong attacks and are happy they did not happen.

Hindsight is 20/20. But there is nothing in this column I did not assert in the run up to the general election. By early September, when there were no serious attacks from the Hubbell campaign, I began to fear the worst. Still, I contributed to the campaign and like hundreds of other Democrats did what I could to help.

But I was certain then, as I am now, that Hubbell’s campaign message needed highly charged rhetoric to elicit anger and mistrust toward his opponent. Let’s hope this lesson will not be lost on Democrats who run for statewide offices in 2020.

Joe Gorton is an associate professor at UNI where he served for five years as president of the faculty union. Much of his post graduate work focuses on public policy, community organizing and political sociology. He has been active in union, community and political organizing for 40 years.

Transcript of Fred Hubbell campaign ad, “Tammy”:

Tammy: “The Medicaid privatization is a life or death issue for Iowa’s children.”

Graphic: “Iowa Medicaid Is Burning, Quad-City Times 04.04.18”

Tammy: “My son started to have mental health issues symptoms very young.

“When I thought about planning a family, I thought about college, I thought about grandchildren. Now, my number one dream for my kid is he’s alive at eighteen.

“What means a lot to my family and I is that Fred Hubbell has the courage to undo Medicaid privatization, to spend money on children’s mental health. Fred’s the only one who is able to actually tell me how to solve the problems.”

Transcript of Fred Hubbell campaign ad, “Tucker”:

Tucker: “Three days before Christmas, I get an email from my health care agency saying, “We are not going to be able to provide you any more services. Happy Holidays.”

I was forced to move, and when you’re a C5 quadriplegic, it’s more or less a life and death situation.

That was really when I got scared.

I do not believe that Medicaid privatization is saving us any money. Health care situations are getting worse.

And Governor Reynolds, is saying it’s getting better? People are dying.”

About the Author(s)

Joe Gorton

  • "Messaging"

    Another overlooked factor is coordination of “messages” with “partners.” For example, it is very hard for Democrats to be champions for education when superintendents and school boards are constantly soft-pedaling the predicaments we are putting them in. And teachers are often “too busy” to show up or speak up. We will see if legislative Democrats are learning these lessons. Not just a problem for statewide candidates. Let’s talk to voters before we start sending them messages.

  • I agree entirely..

    Prof Gorton is correct in his assessment of the kid glove campaign of Hubbell. I, too, worried that his TV spots were too subtle. The “Tucker” ad was good…but it needed a follow up spot about how the Medicaid Managed Care companies were massive contributors to her campaign, how nursing home owners, (often out of state) were huge contributors to Reynolds.Understanding who were her contributors and then comparing their issues with the actions Reynolds took on their behalf…would have been a great ad..and then showing how these positions and laws affected Iowans. She is bought and paid for..and the bills she signs are direct examples of that…and they are not for the good of middle class Iowans. I also groaned when I understood who was ‘in charge’ of the campaign. It was also noted that on most weekends the Hubbell campaign was simply not in the all..while Axne’s campaign was virtual nonstop 24/7. Playing nice is never a winner in campaigns…but as Gorton suggests…factual and sharp condemning ads about the opponent are essential to winning. Democrats have GOT to get over that…and let’s have a governor candidate show up in an ad looking like a Governor…in a suit and tie with the Statehouse as a backdrop or an interior wall of the Statehouse being the backdrop. Let’s skip the open chambray shirt in a park shelter TV spot. I want to see a Governor, not my neighbor at a picnic.

  • Professor Gorton's message should be heeded...

    …and the victories of Axne and Finkenauer should serve as lessons for the next Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Iowa. And I appreciate the opportunity to see the ads used to defeat Walker and Cruz. To me, those ads seem more effective than even the two best Hubbell ads (which I remember seeing) for which transcripts were provided.

    Per the gmcgdem comment above, I still don’t know who was “in charge” of Hubbell’s campaign. But if the campaign wasn’t going 24/7, as claimed, that’s a big problem. Next time around,, I will try to find out more about the campaigning as well as the candidates before the primary. After the past few elections, I’d rather vote for a good candidate with a great campaign than a great candidate with a mediocre campaign.

  • Never saw those ads before

    They are unbelievably weak.

  • Like this....

    The young woman working in the corrections system for the state was beautifully articulately livid as she addressed the state Republican legislature shortly before they stripped her of her bargaining rights. She explained clearly and viciously how she was a Republican and had voted for them and they had never ever campaigned on what were inflicting on her. And that she would never in her life vote Republican again. I thought then and there that Iowa Democrats should use video clips of her speech over and over and over. You’ve got to pound it with clear examples into uneducated people’s heads who and what Republican politicians are to have a chance of the uneducated voting against a Republican.

  • Waaay to nice on Reynolds.

    Fred needed to bring up how corrupt and controlled she is. Cheated on her husband with a state contractor, cheated on her college degree, sucked up to Steve King. Iowans do not like cheaters. Needed to show Kim yukking it up with her Casino pals overlaid with school funding problems. Talk about how give aways to rich companies directly cause increased state University tuition and debt. Show her contempt for ordinary Iowans. Her contempt for farmers and rural Iowans by defunding economic development.