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Summer is when presidential campaigns are lost and won, and the strategy for those summer days is usually hatched in the spring. With the Olympics coming up in mid-July, the Dole campaigning had to start defining the candidate before America's attention turned to sylphlike gymnasts and gargantuan weight lifters. But it was not until May that Fabrizio launched a massive poll to find a way to frame the race, to come up with a message to run on. Penn had done Clinton's benchmark polling almost a year before.
Fabrizio distilled his new data into a 35-page eyes-only memo, "Assessing the Current Political Environment and Thematic Recommendations." The memo offered reams of information but few recommendations. Fabrizio pointed out that women are stressed and too busy, that parents worry about their kids' futures, that voters are cynical about politics. In Fabrizio's memo, the Dole team had a pale version of Penn's neuro poll. But no one in Dole's camp ever figured out how to apply its meager insights. As a rationale for Dole's candidacy, Fabrizio pointed to the economy but offered few ideas on what Dole should say about it. The economy "sits in uncharted territory," he wrote, but even voters uncertain about the future "are not predisposed to believe that taxes are the root of the problem." Tax cuts were not a silver bullet.
In June, Sipple proposed a new slogan for Dole: "Steady Dependable Leadership to Secure America's Future." It was a fine slogan--for Robert Taft, not Robert Dole. It felt older and creakier than the candidate himself. Sipple was an admaker, not a big-picture guy; he had written only a few memos, hitting on a few themes but never laying out a coherent message strategy.
Sipple was interested in the "Clinton Crunch"--the idea that higher taxes and bigger government had slowed the economy and forced people into two jobs. Many people did seem to be having a hard time making ends meet. But Fred Steeper, a seasoned pro, knew something that the less experienced Fabrizio did not. Voters always said they were having trouble making ends meet. They even said it in 1984, during the golden glow of Reagan's Morning in America. "Like farmers," Steeper said, "voters are never happy." What was significant, thought Steeper, was that voters were not blaming Clinton for their unhappiness.
To sort things out, Sipple wrote his own analysis, relying on a newspaper poll instead of Fabrizio's data, and sent it to the Dole brain trust. In the memo, Sipple argued that Dole could not get a "clear win" on the economic issue so long as the public was generally satisfied with it. Instead, the breakdown of values--voter concern with crime, drugs, welfare and immigration--should be highlighted, he said, with Dole portrayed as a kind of moral policeman. "It is now urgent," he wrote, "that we come to an agreement on a rationale for candidacy, a theme and the message." Four months before the election, Dole's chief strategist was still searching for a strategy.