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Mellman: Party brand vs personal brand

Mellman: Party brand vs personal brand
© Greg Nash

In the wake of a great victory for the American Rescue Plan, predicated on Democratic unity, I hate to reopen old wounds, but I hope I can be excused as my purpose is pedagogical, not polemical.

In the election aftermath, Reps. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerThe Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Lawmakers say companies need to play key role in sustainability MORE (D-Va.) and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race Ocasio-Cortez, Gillibrand and Moulton call for more high-speed rail funding in infrastructure package Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality MORE (D-N.Y.) famously sparred over the party’s direction.

Note that Spanberger outperformed Joe Biden in her District by just 1 percentage point, while Ocasio-Cortez ran 1.7 points behind the president. (Thanks to Daily Kos for crunching all the data to provide the important presidential vote by congressional district numbers.)

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This is neither to praise, nor condemn, either congresswoman, nor to suggest Biden determined the number of votes each got.

It is to argue that, despite all the effort and expense to which each went, attempting to cultivate their own, quite different, personal brands, the underlying partisan disposition of voters led Biden and Ocasio-Cortez to do about equally well in New York’s 14th District, while Biden and Spanberger also matched each other closely in Virginia’s 7th.

In other words, the party brand proved far more important than the personal brand each worked so diligently to develop. Returning to the theme of an earlier piece on the presidential race, none escaped the gravitational pull of partisanship.

Few do, anymore:

·      On average, Democratic congressional candidates across the country ran just 8-tenths-of-a-percentage-point ahead of President BidenJoe BidenChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  EPA announces new clean air advisors after firing Trump appointees |  Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior | Watchdog: Bureau of Land Management saw messaging failures, understaffing during pandemic Poll: Majority back blanket student loan forgiveness MORE in their districts. Meanwhile GOPers ran 1.2-points behind Donald TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE.

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·      The House Democrats who ran farthest ahead of Biden were Hawaii’s Ed CaseEdward (Ed) CaseMORE and Maine’s Jared Golden (full disclosure: Mellman Group client), who bested the presidential candidate by just 8 points. Two others ran 7 points ahead and it was down from there. Minnesota Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarYoung Turks founder on Democratic establishment: 'They lie nonstop' Hillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters MORE ran farthest behind Biden (an extreme outlier at minus 16 points), while another candidate garnered 10 points less than the president.

·      It wasn’t always so. In 1984, I worked for then-Rep. Tom Daschle who ran 21 points ahead of presidential candidate Walter Mondale in South Dakota. He was not alone. His North Dakota neighbor, then-Rep. Byron Dorgan, ran a vast 45 points ahead of Mondale, while the Hawaii members bested their presidential candidate by 38 points — feats impossible to imagine today.

·      As computed by professor Charles Franklin, the relationship between presidential and House vote rose dramatically from 2000 to 2020, jumping from 0.53 to 0.63 to 0.73, to a near perfect 0.93 in 2020. Understand this not as causation — Biden’s support didn’t cause congressional support — but rather as association. The same underlying factor — partisanship — determined both.

·      This is not just a function of presidential years. In the 2018 midterm, the average Democratic House candidate ran just two-tenths of a point ahead of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonVirginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP Hillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race Hillary Clinton: Casting doubt on 2020 election is 'doing Putin's work' MORE’s performance two years before, with GOPers 3 points behind Trump’s earlier showing.

·      No election between 1956 and 1996 produced fewer than 109 House districts where different parties won the presidential and congressional balloting. In 2008 there were 83, and today there are just 16 such districts, the lowest number in 100 years.

These facts suggest we have moved from an era of candidate centered campaigns to one of party centered campaigns. Building a personal brand more potent than the party’s brand is nearly impossible.

Nearly, but not completely, impossible. The House Republican who ran furthest ahead of Trump in 2020 was Pennsylvania Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave Fitness industry group hires new CEO amid lobbying push MORE, who, to Democrats’ continual consternation, has managed to fashion a personal brand that keeps him winning in a Biden-Clinton-Obama district.

Doing so required him to become a veritable heretic — opposing GOP positions on a host of key issues from health care to immigration, guns, and climate change.

No one (at least no Democrat), should take this as a call to abandon campaigning, and merely drift on the partisan wave. But even assuming best efforts, candidates can no longer expect to fare much better than does the party’s brand — an important reason to burnish it. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.