Sunday, September 03, 2006

Silverman's Edge

One of the worst things that a candidate can have happen is for his opponent to shape perceptions of him. The 2004 presidential election showed this vividly as Republicans successfully cast John Kerry's public image as that of a flip-flopper which conveniently deflected attention away from the fact that George Bush led the country into a war on a false premise. Steve Silverman's massive fundraising edge is allowing him to shape the race for county executive. He has started an aggresive mail and television campaign to build a positive image of himself but, even more importantly, shape a negative image of Ike Leggett.

Silverman's tag line for Leggett, "Good Guy. Bad Ideas.", is absolutely brilliant. While Leggett has the difficulty of running as an African-American candidate in a white-majority county, Silverman faces the problem of how to attack a well-liked black candidate in a jurisdiction where many pride themselves on racial tolerance. This tag line makes it easier for Silverman to attack Leggett but at the same time shies away from any sense of racial clash--critical if Silverman doesn't want to promote a backlash--by communicating that it is not the person but his proposals which are the problem.

The slogan is also great because it helps Silverman get around the problem that Leggett is extremely well-liked. When he ran for county council, Leggett repeatedly topped the ballot. I've met him and he is extremely affable. Leggett manages to form connections without coming across as someone looking for political gain--a skill most politicians can only envy but I think just comes naturally to Leggett. By conceding that Leggett is a "good guy", the tag line allows voters to move on to focus on Silverman's attacks a.k.a. Leggett's "bad ideas."

Silverman has managed to land several blows on Leggett's campaign. To take just one example, his claim that "Ike Leggett supports using state public money for private schools" is just devastating in a county where public education is a religion. I remember when I left Montgomery to go to college and was absolutely floored to learn that some places voted down school-bond referenda. A candidate simply cannot allow himself to be cast as hostile to public schools in Montgomery County and expect to survive.

Silverman has also managed to blunt Leggett's natural advantage on the issue of growth. Though Silverman has received the lion's share of developer support in a year where the word "developer" is being thrown around as a the new synonym for Mephistopheles, Silverman is aggressively working to cast Leggett as the true pro-growth candidate and obfuscate Leggett's potential edge on one of the major issues of the day. Silverman's strong support of the Purple Line even allows him to portray himself as someone trying to due to something about growth and to contrast himself favorably with Leggett.

Not all efforts by a candidate with more money are destined to succeed. Some are done is such a ham-handed fashion that they fail. And a really skilled candidate can turn attacks back on their opponent. Martin O'Malley understands this perfectly as he nipped in the bud Republican efforts to spread rumors that he is a womanizer and used the publicity to reinforce the Democratic image of Bob Ehrlich as unprincipled and corrupt.

However, even if one behind in the money chase, a candidate needs enough money to be able to respond forcefully to attacks and land a few blows of their own. O'Malley trails Ehrlich is funds but there is no question that he will be able to respond to attacks as well as launch them. The gap between Silverman and Leggett is far greater and leaves open the question whether Leggett can effectively respond to Silverman or will simply have his message drowned out as the campaign for the Democratic nomination, which is effectively the election here, enters its final days.

Despite Leggett's natural advantage in the current issue climate and that my neighborhood (located near the proposed path of the Purple Line) is a forest of Leggett signs, I increasingly believe that this may be Silverman's race to lose. Silverman is shaping a negative image of Leggett's policies and Leggett has yet to create a strong image of himself and the policies he would pursue as county executive.