Vermont Gov Shumlin
In 2010, we helped Peter Shumlin win one of the few Democratic Gubernatorial pick-ups in the nation.
To do it, Shumlin first had to negotiate a crowded primary field. He faced four other Democrats, each with an electoral and financial base, and each with a roughly equal record of progressive accomplishment.
With little daylight to work with on issues, we helped Shumlin stand out by building a clearer and more decisive brand.
Our ads – including a three-ad sequence featuring Peter talking to camera and drawing on a white board, a la the UPS ad campaign – captured the force of Shumlin’s personality and provided him with a visually distinctive hook, even on topics – like broadband access – that are not generally considered visually interesting. Our ads’ simplicity stood out on the most crowded airwaves Vermont has ever seen, drew an implicit contrast without mentioning any other candidate by name, and provided a coherent visual thread for the mail and other parts of the team to build on.
Shumlin emerged from a hard-fought primary directly into a general election race where his Republican opponent Brian Dubie had key advantages – momentum from an easy primary win, a well-marshaled warchest, a departing Republican Governor with stratospheric approval ratings, and a reputation for being the kind of “independent” Republican New England voters always seem to fall for. Dubie led in our original internal polling.
Working with the polling team we developed a model that allowed us to identify key swing voters and the issues they were most likely to change their minds on.
Shumlin’s general election campaign was an incisive mix of positive ads and smart negatives. First, an initial touch of humor allowed us to be negative about Brian Dubie without violating Vermont’s ostensibly genteel political culture.
Then we discovered that Brian Dubie’s pro-life stance was his Achilles’ heel. Polling confirmed what we knew from a decade’s worth of work for Planned Parenthood – that voters are often inclined to treat reproductive choice as a “signifier” issue, that tells them all they need to know about a Republican candidate’s moderation (or lack thereof). And a key swing bloc – “women on their own” – were particularly persuadable on choice.
We allowed Vermont women to speak with their own voice on the issue; national groups jumped in to Dubie’s defense to confuse the debate, and we called them out for being outsiders.
In the end, Shumlin pulled out a come-from-behind victory. (And, as Governor, immediately thrust Vermont into the forefront of the national debate by putting Vermont on the path to a single-payer health care system. But that’s a story for another day).