Frame Game

Election Night Excuses

Twenty spins you’ll hear from partisan flacks Tuesday night.

1 We did better than Newt Gingrich said we would.

Gingrich, with typical chutzpah, has predicted the GOP could pick up 40 or more House seats. Democrats, with equal chutzpah, will portray anything less as a Democratic victory.

2. We did better than the pundits said we would.

The conventional wisdom on likely Republican gains has ranged from six to 20 House seats and from three to five Senate seats. If Democrats hold the GOP below the upper end of this range, they’ll claim victory. If Republicans beat the lower end, they’ll claim victory.

3 We did well, considering how heavily we were outspent.

Democrats will use this alibi in nearly every close race. Republicans will claim that many of their candidates were outspent, if you count the additional “union money.”

4. We did well, considering the president’s difficulties.

Democrats will offer this excuse without acknowledging that it implies the public is still upset with the president’s behavior. Simultaneously, they will assert that the election is a mandate for ending the investigation of the president’s behavior.

5. We did well, considering the backlash against the investigation.

Republicans will offer this excuse without acknowledging that the backlash is mainstream. Instead, they’ll portray it as a surge of turnout among diehard Clinton supporters.

6. We did well, considering the six year itch.

Democrats will point out that the president’s party usually loses dozens of congressional seats in his sixth year. What they won’t mention is that the reason Clinton didn’t lose those seats in his sixth year is that he lost them in his second.

7 Americans re-elected the Republican majority.

This is the ultimate Republican fallback. Even if the GOP somehow loses seats in both houses, it can ignore its relative setbacks and reassert its absolute supremacy.

8. The Republicans failed to win a filibuster-proof majority.

This is the ultimate Democratic fallback. If Democrats lose fewer than five Senate seats, they’ll say they weathered the tide because voters decided not to entrust Republicans with complete control.

9. We won the close races.

Both sides will use this line. “Close races” are the ones your side won. If a race looked close but you ended up losing it, then it wasn’t really close, so you needn’t mention it.

10. Their candidate won on local issues.

A good spinner never admits that his party’s candidate lost because of the national party’s positions. If an anti-health maintenance organization, pro-public-education Democrat wins, Democrats will say it’s because voters liked her positions on HMOs and education. If she loses, they’ll say its because voters disliked her position on building a local freeway.

11 Their candidate won with vicious negative ads.

If their candidate wins, it’s because his negative ads distracted voters from the issues. If your candidate wins, it’s because voters agreed that the other candidate was wrong on the issues–as your candidate pointed out in his negative ads.

12. Our candidate lost because of vicious media attacks.

If your candidate ran negative ads and their candidate didn’t and your candidate still managed to lose, you can always accuse the media of attacking your candidate. This argument comes in particularly handy when the media have criticized your candidate precisely for running negative ads.

13. Our candidate lost because he screwed up.

If an anti-tax, family values Republican wins, it’s because voters liked his positions on taxes and family values. If he loses, it’s because he was unfairly savaged by the local press for calling his opponent a putzhead.

14. Our candidate did well in a tough district.

The Democratic Party recruits each candidate by telling her that her district opposes the Republican candidate on the issues. The Democratic candidate spends a year on the campaign trail repeating this line. Then, on election night, the candidate and the party claim that she lost because the district was Republican.

15 Our candidate did well, considering he was up against an entrenched incumbent.

This is the least bogus spin. Generally, incumbents do have enormous advantages in clout, money, and name recognition. But when a challenger has these advantages and still manages to lose, his party will invoke the “entrenched incumbent” excuse anyway.

16. Our candidate did well to make the race close.

This is the corollary to spin No. 9. If your candidate was blown out, you brush it off by saying it was never really a race. If your candidate wasn’t blown out, you call this an achievement.

17. Their candidate won thanks to a vocal minority.

This will be the trademark spin of this year’s elections. Everyone knows turnout will be low. So if you lose, you can always claim that the silent, nonvoting majority supported your candidate.

18 Their candidate won on our issues.

The GOP’s 1996 treatment of Clinton is an excellent example. Throughout the campaign, Republicans call the Democratic candidate a liberal. After he wins, they say he won by running as a conservative.

19. Our candidate lost on their issues.

If Republican Matt Fong loses the California Senate race, conservatives will say he blew it because he’s a “squish,” i.e., a moderate. If Democrat Glenn Poshard loses the Illinois governor’s race, liberals will say he blew it because he’s anti-abortion.

20. The polls show voters support us.

If your party gets creamed, you can always find comfort in the exit polls. Somewhere in the blizzard of questions, a couple of findings will suggest that voters sort of agreed with your party’s position on something or other, even if they voted against all your candidates. And after all, isn’t that what really counts?

Recent “Frame Games”

The Flytrap Ad War“: Why the GOP’s new ads are too clever by half. (posted Friday, Oct. 30, 1998)

Clinton’s Peace Therapy“: Is the Middle East deal a new chapter or a reminder of Monica? (posted Wednesday, Oct. 28, 1998)