The James Carville Melancon Strategy Begins To Take Shape

Earlier this week the Times-Picayune’s James Gill, in a column panning Charlie Melancon’s campaign to date as a threat to the viability of politics as Louisiana’s state pastime, asked whether we will soon see the handiwork of Democrat strategic guru and New Orleans resident James Carville as Melancon’s side attempts to climb out of a 20-plus point hole as reflected in the race’s poll numbers.

We’ve begun to see something of a strategy emerge.

The first major strategic task for Carville is to keep the race relevant before national Democrat dollars vacate the field – a major concern for Melancon with poll numbers as lopsided as they are. Toward that end, Melancon’s campaign conducted what looks a whole lot like a “push-poll” last week and – surprise! – found that all of a sudden the race is a lot closer than anybody thought. According to pollster John Anzalone, who back in September released a survey that may have contributed to leading congressional Democrats off a cliff on health care, incumbent Republican David Vitter’s lead on Melancon is only 48-38, not the 24-point lead Rasmussen found for Vitter last month.

Or, apparently, the 23-point lead Rasmussen finds for Vitter in his most recent poll released today.

Anzalone’s poll is the basis for another effort Carville seems to be making; namely, to gin up some optimistic press coverage. Thus today we see a story in The Politico which reads a lot like a Melancon campaign press release; it seems that on a day Rasmussen releases polling data which shows Vitter’s support at a solid 57 percent over Melancon, who polls 34 percent today as opposed to 33 percent last month and is losing to Vitter by a 46-43 count among women despite the senator’s supposed weakness with female voters, Vitter’s seat is the “Democrats’ best opportunity to take down a sitting senator.”

The first quote in the Politico piece? Why, it’s James Carville, who says:

“I think this is our shot for a takeaway. And that in itself will bring a lot of attention down here.”

In other words, since Vitter has a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage over Melancon right now, Carville’s using free media to troll for donations from Washington. Why buy ads when you can get a free one in the “objective” media?

Carville then pushes a wishful-thinking narrative that continues the meme from the Anzalone poll:

“Normally, in this current environment, it’s hard to move a Democrat’s numbers with an argument. This is not the case in Louisiana,” Carville said. “There’s a fundamental pullback from Vitter. They’re kind of shopping out there. They’re not crazy about this guy.”

A fundamental pullback? Vitter polls at the same 57 percent in Rasmussen that he polled a month ago, and the 48 percent in Anzalone’s poll from last week is a percent better than the one Melancon’s campaign released in May of last year. There is no pullback showing up in the numbers, but this is Carville’s attempt to create a narrative irrespective of the facts.

The Anzalone poll’s internals seem deeply flawed, but they provide talking points for Carville’s free Politico ad. First, the article notes that the poll found 47 percent willing to vote for “someone else” and 43 percent said they’d vote for Vitter. The poll also says Vitter’s name identification of 92 percent is the source for his lead, as Melancon’s name ID is only 59 percent. It goes on to say that “Once voters hear equal amounts of positive information about each candidate, Melancon takes a 4-point lead (46% Melancon / 42% Vitter),” which is basically a dead giveaway that it’s a push-poll.

The poll also took place over the course of six days rather than the normal three, and it was conducted from Feb. 18, the Thursday after Mardi Gras, to Feb. 24, the Wednesday of the following week. Whether the sample was affected by events is debatable, but an awful lot of folks of means in the New Orleans area tend to get out of Dodge the week of Mardi Gras and the ones who stick around town tend to be in the midst of catching up with work and might not have the time to talk to Charlie Melancon’s pollster.

Anzalone suggests that since Mary Landrieu polled at 96 percent of the black vote against John Kennedy in 2008, if Melancon can poll 90 percent of that demographic he’s all of a sudden within two points of Vitter (46-44). That might not be a bad assumption, but on the other hand it’s hard to see a compelling reason why African-American turnout for Melancon this fall is going to be anything even remotely like what it was two years ago when Barack Obama was at the top of the ballot – and it ought to be remembered that Obama was pounded by 19 points by John McCain that year even with the high, near-unanimous black turnout. So a strategy depending on turnout in the black community on Melancon’s part is flawed on the basis of the pushback it will generate with white voters, and let’s not forget that Melancon is no Mary Landrieu. While Carville might be able to help him get out the black vote, it’s not as though he’s beloved in that community – after all, just three years ago he caused a furor by suggesting that the Democrats needed to run a white conservative candidate for governor if they wanted to beat Jindal, which alienated several of the power brokers he would need to generate a high turnout.

The Melancon campaign poll release also says that Vitter is becoming more unpopular and can’t take advantage of the Republican tide because of his personal baggage, which comes through loud and clear in Carville’s Politico statements. It also comes through in the statements of Melancon’s campaign manager Bradley Beychok, who has this to say in the article:

“He has been cheating on Louisiana for too long, and it’s time the people know it,” said Melancon campaign manager Bradley Beychok, previewing some of the language that will be used to remind voters of Vitter’s personal problems.

“Sen. Vitter is not the poster boy for a model, law-abiding citizen, and he has failed to deliver for Louisiana middle-class families,” Beychok said.

Back to Carville, who hints at the next step in Melancon’s campaign strategy…

“I would deem him on probation right now,” said Carville, assessing Vitter’s vulnerability among female voters. “If he gets hit with a second thing — which can happen in these campaigns — there’s going to be no great reluctance to unleash. And the voters are more prone to believe it.”

In other words, what we’re in for with the Melancon-Vitter campaign, at least on the Democrat side, is a series of personal assaults sliming the senator in an effort to dredge up his personal past. Melancon’s side knows that’s a good way to keep his campaign in the headlines and they think Vitter can be scored on as a result.

Maybe they’re right, but a slimy, negative campaign not revolving around the issues doesn’t seem like one which will resonate in the midst of an electorate engaged in policy more than it has been in decades. Unless Carville can come up with some new scandal to enmesh Vitter the public doesn’t already know about, it seems like a tough sell – and should there be a skeleton in Melancon’s closet someone might decide to let out, such a low-brow presentation could backfire in the extreme.

More than that, though, a typical Carville bare-knuckles campaign doesn’t seem like a good fit for “Charlie Boy,” who prides himself on being a nice guy folks on both sides can work with and who keeps as low a profile as you can keep on Capitol Hill. But that might be Melancon’s only real card to play; this week’s controversy over Obama’s proposals to limit sport fishing showed the problems the campaign has on policy; while Vitter served up a spirited and detailed letter to the president in response to revelations that the administration is working on assaulting the rights of 60 million recreational anglers, while Melancon was a day late with a milquetoast communique asking for a meeting to talk about whether the president will let him keep going fishing.

This isn’t to say Vitter is invincible. The business with the hookers took a lot of wind out of his sails and if the Democrats had a legitimately high-powered candidate this really could be a race. But where Vitter is tough is on policy; Louisiana is a politically conservative state and he articulates conservatism as well as anybody. Melancon just can’t compete on that playing field in this environment, regardless of what strategy and tactics Carville might have cooking.

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