Pryor v. Cotton: What Can You Learn?

When you're running for the first time, you won't have a lot of resources and you'll need to take advantage of what you have. One resource is other campaigns - follow them closely and take away the best of what they do, and avoid the mistakes they make. The point of this series is to help first-time candidates do just that. Shoot me an email if you want help with your race. 

Context of the Race

2014 Cook Index for Arkansas: R+14
Polling when Cotton entered the race (August 2013): Cotton +2

Arkansas leans heavily Republican, but isn't hostile to Democrats. Democratic candidates have won a number of statewide races and Pryor is running for his third term as Senator. Arkansas, more than other southern states, had resisted shifting Republican until recently, when voters unhappy with Obama began to move the state reliably red.

Mark Pryor is the two-term incumbent Senator who won with 54% of the vote in 2002 and ran unopposed by Republicans in 2008. Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan army veteran and a first term Congressman.

Mark Pryor: Out of Touch (obama attack helped by other slip ups that make him look out of touch)

Cotton's Message

Tom Cotton made the message about the voters when he announced his run in August of 2013.  This is an important point to remember: the election is always about the voters - not you. What was Obama's tag line in 2008? "Yes I can?" No, it was "Yes we can." Because elections are about the voters.

There is a great "trick" in messaging that connects well with voters. Give them a clear choice between two visions for the future, and let them choose which side to go with - but stack the odds in your favor.

For example, let's say you're a conservative Republican running against a liberal Democrat. You might say something like this: "Do you think that we pay too little in taxes? Do you think that government is the best solution to most problems? Do you think we have too few regulations? Well that's fine - you probably agree more with my opponent than with me, and you should support him. But if you want less government and lower taxes, then join my campaign." 

Here is how Tom Cotton used this in his kickoff: 

Just four days ago, Mark Pryor even said it would be a “waste” of a Senate seat to elect a senator to oppose Barack Obama. Well, I’ll put it very simply: Do you agree with Barack Obama 90% of the time? If so, Mark Pryor is your man. If not, stand with me in this election and I’ll stand with Arkansas in the United States Senate.

Because that’s the simple choice: Barack Obama’s Washington versus our Arkansas heritage. This isn’t about Democrats and Republicans. A lot of you are Democrats, and you supported me last year. My Dad’s a Democrat. Last year was the first time he voted in a Republican primary—and I had to convince him to do that.

This is an election about you, and who stands with you. By his voting record, Mark Pryor has proven that he stands with Barack Obama and the Washington elite who want to run your life. Whether it’s standing up to Barack Obama or my own party leaders—which I’ve proven I’ll do—I will stand with you and I will stand with Arkansas. (Cotton website

See how he did that? He created a clear choice between "Barack Obama's Washington" and "Our Arkansas Heritage" - and told voters if they prefer Obama's Washington, they should support Mark Pryor. If not, they should support Tom Cotton.

Here is a video he posted to his YouTube account during his kickoff tour around the state. It embodies the message Cotton has been pushing throughout the campaign, that this election is about "Our Arkansas Heritage" (and Tom Cotton) vs. Barack Obama's Washington (and Mark Pryor).

Cotton is asking viewers to become a part of "our campaign," because it's not HIS campaign to become Senator, it's the campaign for all Arkansas against Barack Obama's Washington. 

Pryor's Message

Pryor is a good retail politician, and he has run a campaign that tries to emphasize his likability to Arkansans. He knows his best opportunity to win is to do what Cotton is trying to do - make the race about Arkansans versus the bad guy (Tom Cotton). 

Pryor ran his first round of ads as soon as Cotton announced, trying to define Cotton as blindly ambitious before Cotton had a chance to define himself to Arkansas voters. Here's Pryor's first ad, which began running the week Cotton announced:

At the same time, Pryor was running ads to defend himself against attack ads he received from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was unhappy with a Pryor vote against gun-control. Note that he not only defends himself against the specific attack but uses the ad to try to head off attacks tying him to Obama that he (correctly) expected from Cotton:

And here's a third Pryor ad, where he talks directly to the camera about his faith.

So the two messages are this: 

Cotton: This race is about us Arkansans against Barack Obama's Washington (and Mark Pryor).

Pryor: This race is about us Arkansans against the blindly ambitious and heartless Tom Cotton.


Maybe more than any other race, this one appears to come down to the national mood being anti-Democrat and anti-Obama. Pryor is fairly well-liked by Arkansans, but it's probably not going to be enough to overcome the ties to Obama. Cotton did an excellent job of defending himself against the line of attack Pryor chose to use, that Cotton was "blindly ambitious and entitled."

Cotton's resume provides a pretty good defense against that, and he used it well. Cotton is a Harvard graduate who chose to enlist in the Army rather than make a lot of money as a lawyer. Once he enlisted, he had the opportunity to be an Army lawyer, but chose the infantry instead. 

Politico reviewed the race in March of this year, and here's what they wrote:

In an interview with MSNBC that aired Wednesday, Pryor said of Cotton, “I think that’s part of this sense of entitlement, that he gives off, that is almost like, I served my country, therefore let me into the Senate. That’s not the way it works in Arkansas.”
Cotton said he does not have a sense of entitlement — rather, he said, he believes accomplishments come from hard work, a lesson he learned growing up on a farm in Arkansas and during his time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But he said he is surprised that Pryor doesn’t think Congress needs more veterans.
“I think men who sacrificed a lot more than either Sen. Pryor or I, like Sam Johnson or John McCain, have been treasures for our country, have been great leaders in the United States Senate and United States Congress,” Cotton said. “And frankly, I think if we had more people in the Congress who were veterans, Congress might be a little more respected, just like our military is.” (Politico)

He shielded himself very well from the attack. With more research, Pryor may have come up with something better. But he may have just run up against a good campaign in a state that leaned heavily Republican anyway. 

Takeaways for your campaign

It's important to anticipate attacks and be prepared to respond. Pryor tried to paint Cotton as ambitious and entitled, but Cotton was able to keep those attacks from sticking. You can do the same thing, and you don't even have to randomly guess at your opponent's attacks. Sometimes they'll make what they plan to say about you clear early in the campaign, like Pryor did. 

If not, here's how you anticipate what your opponent will say about you. Draw a grid with four quadrants like this one:

When you're filling out the grid, you want to consider "what so I want voters to be thinking about when they go to the polls on Election Day?" 

In the upper left hand corner, what does Cotton want voters to think about Tom Cotton? In the upper right hand corner, what does Cotton want voters to think about Mark Pryor. In the bottom left, what does Pryor want voters to think about Tom Cotton? And finally in the bottom right, what does Pryor want voters to think about Mark Pryor. 

Once this is filled out, you'll be able to look at contrasts between boxes and understand what your message should be and what your opponents message should be, and that will help you anticipate attacks. If you have any questions about filling this out, feel free to email me and I can help walk you through it. 

It's a great exercise that helps you visualize the campaign months into the future - because once you've done it, you'll know what your opponent's best line of attack is, and you'll be able to prepare a response in advance. 

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