How Democrats Win in Red States: Tim Johnson


Situation

In 2002, two popular and unbeaten South Dakotan politicians went head to head in what would become one of the closest Senate races in US history. Senator Tim Johnson, a first term incumbent Democrat, faced Congressman John Thune, a Republican hand-picked by President Bush and Karl Rove. Republicans were determined to oust this Democrat from one of the reddest states in the country.

Solution

Using benchmark surveys and listening closely to South Dakotans in focus groups throughout the state, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner developed a strategy uniquely tailored to South Dakota and the circumstances of Johnson's campaign. By June, the strategy would even the race and put Johnson in position to win.

Our strategy anticipated a Thune campaign based on values, the national Republican agenda, and strong support for President Bush in a post 9/11 environment. To close the gap, the strategy localized the race and focused Johnson's message on effectiveness and advocacy for South Dakota. The campaign used its advertising to stress Johnson's record of standing up for South Dakotans in a personal and local way, using small examples that added up to a serious record of achievements and sent a strong message about Senator Johnson's values.

As the race went down to the wire, South Dakotans went to vote knowing that losing Tim Johnson would be losing something important to their interests - but Republicans were energized by unprecedented White House support for their candidate. Across the US, votes were flowing against Democrats as Republicans strengthened their hold on Congress and seized control of the US Senate. But in deep red South Dakota, Democrat Tim Johnson withstood the tide with a 527 vote advantage returning him to office. Our strategy was designed to let Senator Johnson run as himself and on his record of "Working Hard. Making a Difference," at a time when many Democrats were conflicted about the image they needed to portray to voters.

Methodology

The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner team, led by GQR President Al Quinlan, brought a full range of campaign services to the Johnson campaign, including strategic and tactical advice from start to finish, as well as benchmark, tracking, and targeting surveys, focus groups, ad testing, and message construction.