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Morning Jay: What Harry Reid Can Teach the GOP About 2012

6:00 AM, Oct 21, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Harry Reid said something colossally stupid this week: “The massive layoffs we’ve had in America today—of course, they’re rooted in the last administration—and it’s very clear that private sector jobs are doing just fine. It's the public sector jobs where we’ve lost huge numbers, and that's what this legislation’s all about.”

Such cringe-worthy comments are typical from the Senate majority leader. Moreover, he's been a backroom dealer for the Democrats, epitomizing the problems of Washington. (He was also the broker of many of the parochial goodies stuffed in Obamacare, such as the “Cornhusker Kickback.”) For years, Reid has been a burden for the Democratic party’s image. 

Yet, the fact Reid won another term in the 2010 midterm election despite Congress's widespread unpopularity, of which he was the leader, should serve as a lesson and warning for Republicans as the primary season begins.

The secret to Reid's success lies in these two sets of numbers from the 2010 Nevada exit poll.

The implication of these charts is troubling. A solid majority of Nevada voters disapproved of both President Obama and Senator Reid, yet the latter was able to win a secure victory. The reason? A decisive minority of this group found Angle to be unacceptable. She only won 78 percent of the Obama disapprovers and a terrible 82 percent of the Reid disapprovers.

What is clear from the exit poll data as well as the campaign itself was that Reid perfectly executed the “frontlash” strategy. He attacked Angle with vigor and, thanks in no small part to the Republican’s own missteps, was able to tag her as extreme. A staggering 45 percent of voters thought Angle’s positions were “too conservative,” and Reid captured 75 percent of those voters.

This “frontlash” strategy has deep roots in the American political tradition. The Lyndon Johnson campaign actually coined the term in 1964; fearful of an electoral backlash to the Civil Rights Act, Johnson set about creating a frontlash by tagging Goldwater as a dangerous extremist. The “Daisy Ad” is the most infamous example, but this ad is actually a better illustration of frontlash in action.

“The stakes are too high.” That was the theme that LBJ hit, again and again. It worked to an amazing degree. LBJ won the largest popular vote majority up to that time, including 77 percent of independents and 27 percent of Republicans, two figures that are unprecedented in the postwar era. And, of course, Johnson’s coattails swept out Republicans from Congress and swept in liberal Democrats, paving the way for the Great Society reforms of 1965-66.

All of this was probably a bit of overkill by LBJ, who after his defeat for the Senate in 1941 never left anything to chance. The fact of the matter is that the president would likely have won anyway: the economy was going gangbusters, the country was still mourning the death of JFK, LBJ had not yet begun combat operations in Vietnam, and the race riots of the late 1960s hadn’t begun.

It should be clear by now that Barack Obama plans to run a version of the frontlash strategy, and unlike LBJ it is an absolute necessity for him. He can’t run on his record, and amping up the Democratic base with partisan red meat is not enough to win election in a country where independents hold the balance of power.

That’s where frontlash comes into play.

Any time you hear the Democrats squawking about how the Republicans are “anti-science,” that’s the frontlash in action. The goal is to tag the GOP as a bunch of flat earth throwbacks who are too extreme for the independent swing voters to support.

Will it work? Well, that depends. On the Republicans.

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