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Text of Bill Hillsman memo on U.S. Senate race in Minnesota

Here is the text of a confidential memo from noted political advertising adviser Bill Hillsman detailing his view on how Dean Barkley, although trailing in the polls, could still win the Senate election on Tuesday.



TO: Dean Barkley   
FROM: Bill Hillsman
RE: State of the Race/Closing Weekend
DATE: 10/30/08

Here’s where we believe the campaign stands entering the final weekend:

According to all the indicators we are looking at, Dean is between 22%-25% and rising. This comes from reviewing the available poll data and from key indicators like the Democratic primary vote, analysis of the Wellstone swing vote and the Ventura vote, the last two independent gubernatorial votes and Dean’s federal electoral performance.

It will be tough to win, but it’s possible if the campaign and the party pull out all the stops this weekend and on Monday-Tuesday to get out the vote and tell people why Dean is the right choice.


We’ve seen this movie before.  While the press and the other two campaigns seem to have concluded that Dean cannot win (and some have tried to portray him as a spoiler), independent Minnesota voters like underdogs and don’t like being told what is going to happen before any of them have cast a vote.  So the reality right now is:  Norm could win.  Al could win.  Dean could win. 

Here’s why: 

• Historically, traditional polling has underrepresented independent voters in MN, especially in high turnout elections.  Self-identified Independent voters approach 40% of the electorate in this state, with a baseline of at least 24%.  So I wouldn’t put too much stock in any current polling, because their models have yet to reflect this reality.

• Ten years ago, exit polls and our own analysis showed Ventura topping out in the high 20s or at 30%, maximum.  But high turnout pushed him to 37%.  And we know there will be not just high turnout, but incredibly high turnout this election.

• Ten years ago, voters were angry at their government for what seems — in retrospect — to be no good reason.  Today we have an economy in shambles, a continuing two-front war, one of the most unpopular Presidents in history, Congress with a 9% approval rating, more dysfunctional partisanship than ever, and a real demand for responsible, accountable change.  There is a lot for people to be angry about. 

So this is definitely a change election. Our fate rests in whether people want responsible, accountable change or if they simply decide to trade one partisan politician for another.  If the candidate, the campaign, and the party can communicate that Dean represents the former, we have a solid chance at pulling off this upset despite the obscene spending deficit we are working against.

• There remains a lot of elasticity in this race.  Coleman, because of his ties to the Bush Administration and because of the damaged Republican brand, can’t rely on absolute solid support of much more than 28%-30%.  A better Democratic candidate could count on close to 40% in these times in this state, but Franken is demonstrably not there.  Al is having big problems closing the deal, and his true real core support is probably not that much higher than Skip Humphrey’s total in 1998.

• There is also attack paralysis benefiting us, just as there was in Ventura’s race.  One of the lessons we thought Coleman took away from 1998 is that he would attack Ventura if he had to do it all over again.  In that race he was doing what he is doing now — which is to sidle up to the independent candidate and try to get rub-off from them to appeal to independent voters.  That’s happening again.  He will praise much of what Dean has to say, try to show how much they have in common, and then tell voters “… but Dean can’t win.”  

Neither Coleman nor Franken really knows what would happen if they were to attack Dean in their ads, so they are frozen.  Norm won’t attack Dean, which leads me to believe their polling shows that we have taken a lot of votes from Norm that they think they can get back late.  The DSCC is attacking Dean (falsely, on Social Security privatization), and trying to tie him to Coleman and to Republican ideas, which indicates to me that their polling shows Al is getting very little support from Independents (certainly compared to Obama) and that  Dean is siphoning votes from Al and continuing to do so, especially among older traditional Democrats.  Al just can’t close the deal:  independents and traditional outstate Democrats don’t like him or trust him.  (More on the weaknesses of Franken below.

• Dean has also found a message that is resonating with voters:  that we have lost faith and trust in our government, our institutions, our elected officials, our economy, etc., and that it is in the hands of the people to restore that faith.  Also that he is truly middle-class and most like the voters and their families.


I. The debates have been important to and informative for voters.   Dean has done very well — arguably winning all of the debates to date — and we need to do well on Sunday.  Coleman was much better in the Almanac debate, and Franken did not do all that well.  Franken looks like he is sitting on the ball, hoping not to make a mistake in the final days, and counting on Obama’s coattails in the state and their GOTV effort to pull him through.  But he is far behind both Obama and Wellstone in earning trust and winning votes among Independents and traditional Democrats; and he has looked ill-prepared for the job in many of the debates, reduced to mouthing partisan Democratic talking points.  Norm knows he needs to look independent of his party to win; the same is true for Franken, but he hasn’t seemed to realize this yet.  And for Dean to win, he has to continue to remind people that he is the true nonpartisan independent in the race.  One of Franken’s weaknesses is that he is sharing a stage with two people who are prepared for the job—who have actually done the job—and he has been diminished in recent debates to looking more like a partisan trained seal, dodging questions and continually returning to party-approved talking points.  He’s a smart guy who often comes across as too smart, so he’s been reined in, and he’s become repetitive and evasive in many of his answers.  And his insistence that he will constantly “fight” for people is something that worked well for Wellstone—who had a long history of community organizing and political activism—but comes across as strained for someone who’s never been that politically active or run for office before.

II. The continuing onslaught of negative ads by both sides has gone far beyond the point of diminishing returns.  Pulling his negative ads was a good move by the Coleman campaign, but probably too late to do him much good.  Especially because the NRSC keeps hammering away at Franken, and because both the DSCC and the Franken campaign are up constantly with some of the most out-of-bounds attack ads I’ve ever seen or  heard, there is strong potential for a big voter backlash.  The message we have to deliver is that the only thing these two parties understand is victory:  if Minnesotans never want to see this kind of campaign again, the only way to send that message is a vote for Dean Barkley.

III. Fear of 60. The national Republicans have moved to this messaging and it could benefit Dean’s campaign.  Basically, the Republicans are arguing that if Democrats control the White House, the House, and have a filibuster-breaking 60 votes in the Senate, we will see unfettered socialism and liberals gone wild.  It ignores how different many members of the Senate are, but it could be effective messaging for a desperate party in desperate times.  We need to tap into this. Dean is an ideal candidate to act as the independent senator who could be a leader in bringing together the moderate, common sense centrist Senators into a bipartisan, decision-making swing vote group, and in doing so wield real power in the Senate.  Senators from Maine, Arkansas, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, Colorado, Montana and other states are ideal prospects.  I’ve said for years that if someone could do this in the Senate, that group would control everything that goes on for at least two decades. 


Contributing to the competitiveness of this race are the weaknesses of the other candidates:

• Al Franken.  It’s hard to be less authentic than Norm Coleman, but somehow Al and the Franken campaign are managing it.  There is a palpable sense among independent voters and swing voters in MN that Al is not a candidate who is being true to himself—that he is being manufactured, manipulated and handled for public consumption. And the machinery is pretty visible.  This is at the heart of why he is running so far behind Obama’s numbers in the state.  While they can’t articulate it—and while this may seem like an odd comparison—the last time voters got sold a high-profile manufactured candidate in this way it was George W. Bush in 1999-2000. And we all know how well that turned out.

Independents and swing voters want a candidate to be himself.  They prize character, individualism, and personal integrity.  Al continues to try to be Paul Wellstone, and well… he’s just not.  I knew Paul pretty well, especially as a candidate for office, and Al Franken is not Paul Wellstone.  Paul knew how to demonstrate his independence, he knew how to resonate with traditional Democratic voters in greater Minnesota, and his swing vote (which is the independent vote in MN) would often vote for him in spite of many of his stands on the issues, just because they had a high regard for his sincerity and his personal integrity.  Wellstone would be thriving in this sort of political environment; Franken continues to not get traction.  Al’s a good enough guy, but Minnesotans just don’t seem to connect with him personally or trust him, certainly not in the way they did with Wellstone.  He almost diminishes himself in the comparison, at least among swing voters.   

We need to remind voters that Minnesota has a tradition of sending some pretty impressive people to the U.S. Senate, and for most voters, Al just doesn’t fit that mold.   Minnesota deserves a Senator who is more than a performer who knows how to cry on cue or has to be told—repeatedly—when to apologize.  Al hasn’t shown he can demonstrate the independent critical thinking or the good judgment that Minnesotans expect in their senators—lately he just looks like someone who is pandering to win an election, and that’s costing him with independents and older, more traditional Democratic voters. 

Al is going to have to depend on the Obama coattails and a Wellstonian GOTV effort to win.  If Obama came to the state, he would probably be tripping over Al trying to hold onto his coattails at every step.  But I think the Obama campaign recognizes that getting too close to Franken might hold back their vote, so I wouldn’t expect to see him in the state to help Al.  It’s remarkable—and confusing–  that traditional Democratic voters in this state are supporting in such great numbers an (obviously qualified) African American candidate (think Alan Page’s election) yet stiff-arming someone who has so consciously tried to remake himself as the second coming of Wellstone. 

• Norm Coleman.  Norm is not an independent at all, and the press is letting him get away with this all too much.  Some of the newspaper endorsements were nauseating in how they clung to this messaging, which is nothing more than a creation of his reelection campaign. 

Norm has always come across as too slick and too personally ambitious for his own good, and independent swing voters have a good antenna for that.  So voters don’t really trust him. 

Where he has gotten too much of a free pass, and what we have to continually remind voters, is that he was hand-selected by the White House to run for the U.S. Senate.   People forget– and the press hasn’t really told the story enough in this campaign—that Norm really wanted to run for governor in 2002 and Tim Pawlenty was going to be the Republican U.S. Senate candidate.  But Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush decided otherwise, and mandated to the candidates and to the state party that they would switch positions.  Coleman was given his marching orders, and he marched. 
This totally undercuts his independent argument, and reinforces the notion that he does what the White House tells him to do.  His “independent” votes are the usual ploys partisan incumbents use two years out from what looks like a competitive election to make themselves more palatable to the electorate, and this, too, has been grossly unreported. 

One of Franken’s latest lines of attack– that if Norm were truly independent and wanting to work in a bipartisan fashion, he wouldn’t be running for the highly partisan position of NRSC chairman—is devastatingly effective.   People can’t be reminded of that too much.  (That’s actually the ad they should be running against him.)

Coleman’s problem, besides the slickness and the lack of trust, is this:  Minnesotans don’t like to be dictated to.  The fact that we have put up for six years with two ambitious marionettes in two of our highest elected offices whose strings are being pulled by what may go down in history as the worst White House ever is something else voters can’t be reminded of too much.


So it may be a long shot, but enough factors are in place for another big upset.  In the final days, we aren’t going to be able to count on advertising the way we could in Ventura’s race.  The lack of public financing for federal races means the money just won’t be there to do the same kind of job.  But this is winnable if the candidate, the campaign, and the party do everything they can to get our message out over these final 5 days.  We need to continually remind everyone that the most important people in this race—the voters—haven’t been heard from yet, and we need to remind people that our candidate:

• doesn’t have to study polls or listen to political consultants to understand the middle class, he IS the middle class, and the candidate who is most like us.

• he is the one candidate who is not evasive and who is giving them the real straight talk, with realistic and common-sense answers to the big problems facing us.

• he is a candidate of change, but the candidate for people who want responsible, moderate and accountable change instead of just a different flavor of partisanship.

• he has already done the job, performed admirably, and will be much more ready to do the job than Al Franken (Dean presents a rare opportunity for voters to get change plus experience).

• he could be very effective in the Senate and could in fact wield a great deal of power by forming a centrist, common-sense bipartisan coalition of moderate Senators who truly want to make the welfare of our country more important than their political parties.

• he’s the one candidate in the race who can bring us together and start to restore faith and trust in our government, our institutions, our economy, etc.

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