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Actions speak louder than Tough Nerd’s words

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

So, is it too soon to start thinking about Election 2014?

If you think so, think again. (Or maybe turn off your TV.)

“One Tough Nerd” is back on the air with a 60-second ad called “Michigan is Back,” and it’s basically the launch of Governor Rick Snyder’s campaign for a second term. That’s despite the fact that Snyder continues to insist that he’s not an “official” candidate and, furthermore, that it wouldn’t be a good idea right now: “When you have the official candidate kind of role, it makes it more confusing for people.”

He also said last weekend at a Republican conference on Mackinac Island that an early launch isn’t necessary because, unlike his political debut in 2010, people now know who he is and he doesn’t have to build name identification.

Yet, not even a week passed before the governor’s reelection campaign made what appears to be a significant ad buy, maybe more than $500,000. Not only is he on the air earlier than anyone else, he’s up four months earlier in the cycle than last time around when he was unknown.

So what gives? It’s interesting that a governor who makes a point of being a non-politician (or, as he prefers, “not your typical politician") is now cutting distinctions that only a politician would make – the kinds of fine-pointed legalisms that typically get teenagers grounded. Governor Snyder is a candidate and should be viewed as such.

We here at It’s Just Politics have never accepted that Snyder was committed to any course other than seeking a second term. And once again, his actions and behavior (as well as most of his words) have borne that out. So why would Snyder belie his own analysis by going up so early? Here are some ideas:

  • Habit. The last time around, Snyder also launched early. We were introduced to “One Tough Nerd” on Super Bowl Sunday 2010, when he was a largely unknown businessman running against some better-known established political names. It worked before.
  • Numbers. Most polls this far out show the governor running at least a little ahead of Mark Schauer - the almost-certain Democratic candidate. But, Snyder is still below that crucial 50 percent mark in every poll that we’re aware of. He’d certainly like to move that number up to a more-comfortable place, preferably before another poll comes out. That would appease Republican funders, too.  And this might be the moment, the public seems to be responding reasonably well to some of his very assertive actions in Detroit.
  • Image. If Rick Snyder wants to remain on top, he’s got to retain control of his image. And maybe the best way is to get out before the Democrats get busy trying to define and redefine impressions of “One Tough Nerd” in the public mind. (Democrats have already crafted their counter-persona, “One Weak Geek.”)

Republicans have never forgotten how Democrats in 2006 came out strong and created an impression of Dick DeVos (another wealthy businessman) as an outsourcer who shipped jobs to China. DeVos was never able to shake that, and lost to Governor Jennifer Granholm – who Republicans thought would be and should be vulnerable. Instead, she took ownership of DeVos’s image and he never won it back.
Unlike DeVos, Snyder is an incumbent. Typically, in the hierarchy of factors that play into voters’ decision-making, the first is whether people approve of the incumbent. If they do, it’s pretty much game over. But, if voters don’t approve or are undecided, they’ll assess their options.

Tactically, that means the challenger typically starts with negative messaging designed to define an incumbent. (DeVos tried to do that without success in 2006.) An incumbent, on the other hand, will open with a positive message.

Democrats seem to be coalesced around former Congressman Mark Schauer. His first job is to make people want to at least consider a change.

The Nerd wants to deny him that chance. If this drive succeeds, this could get expensive. (OK, we know it’s going to get expensive. It could get even more expensive.) If the governor succeeds in moving his approval numbers in the right direction, he’ll have to pay maintenance costs on those numbers for the next 13 months.

That suggests Team Nerd is feeling pretty good about fundraising. But, this just in from the Department of Equal and Opposite Reactions: As soon as Democrats got word of the ad buy, they wasted no time using it as a fundraising tool. A barrage of messages to potential Schauer donors urged an early contribution saying it’s urgent to keep pace with a Republican operation capable of going up this early.

The not-entirely-consistent counter-spin is the governor’s campaign must be “desperate” if it has to go on the air so soon. “Desperate” is a staple term in campaign rhetoric. Expect to hear that word a lot over the next 13 months.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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