Posted: Oct. 4, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If the re-election campaigns for presidents can be classified as slam dunks, refrigerators or underdogs, maybe it would also work for governors.

This curious taxonomy comes from Chris Lehane, a Democratic operative whose knack for finding political escape hatches got him nicknamed the "master of disaster" when he worked in the Clinton White House. Experience always was a good teacher.

Lehane offered his description of presidential re-election campaigns when he spoke last week at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Slam dunks are the ones presidents dream about. The economy is strong, and winning is easy.

Refrigerators are what happens when the economy has seized up. "The opposition could effectively run a refrigerator, and you're still in trouble," Lehane said.

Underdogs are campaigns that are winnable, despite economic shortfallings, with the president getting re-elected by discrediting the other side's candidate.

A look at the past five presidential re-election campaigns -- Bush-the-son in '04, Clinton in '96, Bush-the-father in '92, Reagan in '84 and Carter in '80 -- shows there might be something to it.

The slam dunks? Reagan's morning-in-America and Clinton's bridge-to-the-21st-Century. The refrigerators? Bush-the-father, bushwhacked by it's-the-economy-stupid, and Carter, clobbered by are-you-better-off-now-than-you-were-four-years-ago. The underdog? Bush-the-son sliming Kerry as an elitist flip-flopper while the economy skidded from Sept. 11 toward the Great Recession.

Lehane's scale is pretty much a stripped-down model of campaigns. "There is an attractiveness about the simplicity of his categories, but I'm not sure they hold up under closer scrutiny," said Joe Pika, a political scientist at the University of Delaware. "Much hinges on the competitive environment, the nature of the choice faced by voters."

Oh well. This is politics, and politics is nothing if not simplistic. How else could George Washington Plunkitt become a legend with the philosophy, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em"?

Simplistic appeals to the political set. People could apply Lehane's classifications to the last five governors' re-election campaigns here in Delaware.

Why five? Because there are five fingers on each hand. Simplistic.

They were Ruth Ann Minner, the Democrat in '04, Tom Carper, the Democrat in '96, Mike Castle, the Republican in '88, Pete du Pont, the Republican in '80, and Sherman Tribbitt, the Democrat in '76.

Talk about slam dunks. Carper, Castle and du Pont were all re-elected with somewhere around 70 percent of the vote.

Refrigerator? Poor Tribbitt was in the governor's office when the Farmers Bank, which was partially owned by the state, cratered and nearly took Delaware with it. Not to mention how unhappy people were, anyway. The economy was sickly, and they had been through the Vietnam War and Watergate.

When times are bad, the voters vote mad. Tribbitt was not exactly running against a refrigerator, either. It was Pete du Pont, and Tribbitt became the last one-term governor the state has had.

Minner's re-election had a twist to it. "It was a slam dunk that turned into an underdog," said Erik Schramm, the New Castle County Democrats' past chair who was Minner's campaign coordinator.

Minner won, but barely. The economy was tanking, and she alienated some voters who were part of her natural base downstate by backing the smoking ban and gay rights. An assault against a prison counselor became an issue.

Minner pulled out the election by undermining Bill Lee, the retired judge who was her Republican opponent, with an attack that resurrected a failed land deal and bad loan with Farmers Bank he had decades earlier.

"I think she was clearly beatable. Nobody seemed to know she was beatable until the campaign started," Lee said. "She was a lousy governor, but she knew when to run a negative ad. It was an election I should have won."

So what about 2012? For the presidential election, Lehane foresees an underdog campaign, winnable for Obama by exploiting his Republican opponent's flaws. Translation: it will be ugly.

It will be different in Delaware. Jack Markell is up, a Democrat looking to be the fifth governor in a row to win two terms.

Markell's chances? As Bob Gilligan, the House speaker who is also the Democratic national committeeman, wittily put it, "Nobody loses when they run unopposed."

So far, Markell is. A slam dunk is what happens if people on the other side do the opposite. Instead of a slam dunk, they just damn slunk off.