Why Bennet Beat Romanoff

We’re playing a little bit of catch-up in providing our analysis of the various different outcomes from Tuesday’s Primary. Spurred on by a good Politico story today from David Catanese, here’s our thoughts on how and why Sen. Michael Bennet defeated Andrew Romanoff in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary…

In his Politico story, Catanese lays out a couple of major reasons why Bennet beat Romanoff: 1) Fundraising, 2) Fundamentals, 3) Romanoff’s messaging, 4) President Obama’s support, and, which Catanese writes was most important, 5) The lack of policy differences between Bennet and Romanoff. These are all strong arguments, and we agree with all of them. But here’s what we think made the difference, in order of importance:

1. The Fundamentals of Ballot Chasing

In an election that saw record turnout, due in no small part to the mostly all-mail ballot voting, the core difference was Bennet’s superior ground operation. Because this race seemed to be coming down to the wire in the last week, it’s easy to forget that it was not all that close in the end; Bennet won by an 8-point margin, with a difference of more than 28,000 votes separating the candidates.

Some of the Bennet advantage here came down to fundraising, because his campaign was able to spend more money on staff without having to cut back on TV time. Both campaigns had a lot of volunteer help, but many of Romanoff’s top field organizers were largely volunteers, because Romanoff needed every penny he could save for television. But whatever the reason, Bennet’s camp had a stronger top-down ballot chase organization, as Politico notes:

“Frankly, it’s just the fundamentals. People help support what they help to create. We brought people in on the ground level and gave them ownership and accountability. People want to meet hard goals and they will because it feels good to meet them,” said a Bennet aide, referring to the 500,000 attempted calls staffers made between July 19 and Aug. 10…

…Romanoff did not produce the margin he needed out of his base in Denver County, where he only bested Bennet by six percentage points.

“Romanoff needed to win Pueblo and Denver County by really, really large margins,” observed Mike Stratton, a longtime Democratic strategist who supported Bennet and directed the campaigns of former Sens. Ken Salazar and Gary Hart.

By last Wednesday, about two-thirds of Democratic ballots had already been cast. Those first 200,000 Democratic voters equaled the number of voters who cast ballots in the entire 2008 Democratic Primary (which did not have a statewide Primary contest), which meant that the last 140-some thousand votes were probably being cast by (mostly) new voters. Bennet’s campaign identified their supporters and turned them out to vote in better numbers than Romanoff, which helped them overcome a late negative story from The New York Times.

2. Messaging

Romanoff had been in the race for three solid months before he came out with even a small semblance of a message. It wasn’t until late December/early January that he really started pushing his “No PAC Money” message, and it wasn’t a strong-enough issue on its own to win him the election. A “no PAC money” pledge should be a secondary message – not the basis of an entire campaign – because it’s more of an inside baseball approach; the average Primary voter is not generally more informed than the average General Election voter, most of whom probably have no idea what “PAC” even stands for.

As Politico writes:

In the closing two weeks of the campaign, Romanoff appeared to be gaining some ground with his fusillade of attacks, targeting Bennet’s campaign contributions, business dealings and record as Denver school superintendent. But – to the Bennet campaign’s surprise and relief – he never pivoted to a positive message, which left late-deciding voters and fence sitters with a bitter taste…

…But the biggest factor in Romanoff’s failure to gain more ground was that despite the acrimonious back-and-forth between him and Bennet, the policy differences between them never seemed to be substantial.

It’s a fundamental rule of politics that in any campaign against an incumbent, you must both “make the case to fire” and “make the case to hire.” Romanoff never really completed either argument; he came the closest to making the “case to fire” argument, but he certainly never fully made the case why he was a better choice than Bennet. It was a recurring question that came up time and time again in the race, a question which Romanoff never had a good answer for: “What would you do differently?”

To this end, Romanoff also failed at promoting himself in a positive light. Even if his commercials convinced you that Bennet was a bad choice, they never fully explained why Romanoff was a good choice instead. The 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush is a good example of doing this strategically; in late September and early October, Bush’s ads were all about how John Kerry was a terrible candidate. But in the last 2-3 weeks of the campaign, the tone shifted into positive ads about how Bush was the kind of guy you could have a beer with. Romanoff never made that shift, and it cost him.

And finally, where messaging is concerned, Romanoff went one step too far in the negative campaigning. His “Greed” ad that accused Bennet of “looting companies and forcing them into bankruptcy” was widely condemned, and it absolutely backfired. The over-the-top rhetoric in the ad made Romanoff look like a caricature of the same sleazy politician who will say anything to win – an image that was in sharp contrast to what he had tried to portray for months. It’s always a bad sign when the discussion is more about whether your ad is unfairly negative than it is about the message you were trying to convey.

3. Romanoff Got Mired In Too Many Details

The much-discussed New York Times article that was critical of Bennet’s financial decisions while he was Superintendent of Denver Public Schools is a prime example of this. There’s no question that the story was bad for Bennet, and there’s also no question that the timing of it wasn’t ideal; by the time the article ran late last week, there wasn’t enough time left for Romanoff to show it to voters. But even if that story had hit a week or two earlier, it’s hard to say what it would have done because it was just too complicated for the average voter to understand. Financial derivatives are not exactly the best fodder for a negative ad.

But this wasn’t the only example of Romanoff getting stuck in the details. We still remember his campaign statement on the re-election of Omar al-Bashir as President of Sudan because it was typical Romanoff: Too much policy, not enough politics. While Bennet was in the middle of discussions on financial, health care and energy reform in the Senate, Romanoff was putting out statements on his position on the President of a country that half of voters probably never even heard of before.

And then there was the long, drawn-out and unsuccessful attack on Bennet for taking money from Westwood College that was made to look like a bribe by Romanoff’s campaign. In the end, it wasn’t even clear what vote we were supposed to be angry about, and Westwood College even said that Bennet didn’t vote the way they wanted anyway.

Romanoff also seemed unable to properly manage his time and efforts. For example, he wrote a long Op-Ed disputing a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank in which he did a point-by-point rebuttal. That’s great if you’re on the debate team, but you don’t have time to respond to every single critic when you are a U.S. Senate candidate.

4. Fundraising

Bennet has proved to be a prolific fundraiser, and his huge cash advantage meant that he didn’t have to make the same difficult choices that Romanoff had to make.  As we wrote above, Romanoff didn’t have the luxury of being able to fund a full staff and a significant television buy, and that left him at a huge disadvantage when it came to the ballot chase.

Romanoff’s lack of fundraising also kept his challenge largely off the national radar, because every time you looked at Colorado’s quarterly reports, you saw a huge disparity between the two candidates. Raising money is an important way to prove to other big donors that you are worth a check from them because you really might be able to win. Romanoff needed that kind of momentum much earlier in the campaign; when it finally came in the last few weeks, it was too little, too late.

Once the ballots were being counted, the things that killed the Romanoff campaign were the same things that had doomed it from the start. He never had a real reason for why he would be different than Bennet, he was never able to raise much money, and both of those problems combined to prevent him from putting a complete campaign together.

As for Bennet, while he probably should have done more to attack Romanoff early and derail any potential momentum later, his campaign played it by the books; they did what they needed to do, and they did it well.

48 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Barron X says:


    he got more votes.


  2. ThillyWabbit says:

    Neither one should have been messaging about Washington DC or national issues or things like PAC money.

    In November, the winner is going to be decided on local issues, and to the degree that national issues (like the economy) enter the debate, the argument will be won by the candidate who can best relate national issues to local concerns and solutions.

    The average Coloradan without a job doesn’t really care about everything Obama has done to save Detroit (or turn Detroit into a socialist mecca, depending on your point of view). They’re going to care about what Senators so-and-so would do to bring jobs to Colorado.

  3. Diogenesdemar says:

    You’re being far too modest.


  4. PoliticalJack says:


    The biggest difference between the two, other than total dollars raised, was the massive out-of-state and in-state effort on behalf of Bennett by Organizing For America.

    The 2008 machine still works, they worked hard, and they made the difference.


    • Colorado Pols says:

      OFA didn’t really come into Colorado until last Wednesday. Not that they weren’t helpful, but they probably weren’t reason #1.

      • DavidThi808 says:

        Will they do that? Or were the ballots all thrown into a single pile?

      • cunninjo says:

        OFA was quick to jump on the Bennet bandwagon from the moment he was appointed. While most Colorado Democrats were fuming about Ritter’s selection, OFA was actively promoting Bennet across the state through phonebanking and canvassing.

        These early efforts undoubtedly built a strong support base that carried his campaign throughout the primary.

        *The machine is very much still alive as Republicans will discover come November

  5. Interlocken Loop says:

    Ken Gordon effectively ran the Romanoff campaign and ran it into the ground.  Even after Bill Romjue and others were on the scene Gordon was the one Romanoff listened to.  Some of the truly mediocre staff hires were recommended by Gordon.

  6. DavidThi808 says:

    First off, I think your observations are spot-on, especially the lack of Romanoff giving a reason to vote for him.

    Giant miss – by both campaigns – jobs. I think if Romanoff had put a large focus on jobs he would have done a lot better, possibly enough to win on that alone.

    Second, Romanoff faced almost impossible odds. Granted coming close doesn’t count for anything but I think he and his team deserve credit for doing an incredible, albeit not perfect, job.

    • Automaticftp says:

      “Any jackass can burn down a barn . . . “

    • Colorado Pols says:

      Romanoff’s long odds were largely his own doing. One of his biggest mistakes was waiting until August to announce his candidacy. By that point Bennet already had two full fundraising periods under his belt, and was halfway through a third, and many supporters had already signed on with his campaign.

      If Romanoff had run in March, when he first polled on the race, things would have been different. In fact, if Romanoff would have announced in January, we would argue that he would have started with the advantage. Remember, nobody really knew Bennet when he was first appointed by Ritter. Romanoff waited until Democrats had gotten to know him, and donated to him, before deciding to run. And that’s nobody’s fault but his own.  

      • BlueSkies says:

        Not only did he probably wait too long to enter the race, but the waffling and whispering – real or imagined – on whether he wanted to be a senator or governor, the press conference to announce that he was still in the race, and the stupidity over the jobs he’d applied for with the administration, all made him look kind of wishy washy to some.  Then he went all Jekyll and Hyde with the ads and it seemingly went too far.  Some voters – especially my elderly neighbor lady – felt bitch-slapped and didn’t like it.  

    • poodlelord says:

      Everything about how he ran his race begs the question.  

      He picked the wrong office to run for, waited too long to get into the race, when he did get in the race he went months without a real message. When decided upon a message it was a gimmicky no-PAC-money pledge that any career politician (and I mean it honorably with Romanoff) should have known better to make.

      When Romanoff didn’t get any traction with the PAC money pledge, he then upped the stakes with an over the top, class-based attack on a political newcomer who’s only sin was that he was rich and appointed by a governor the left didn’t like.

      Yea, Bennet’s ads were lame and easy to make fun of, but Angry Andy scowling at us through the TV screen every night never answered the question “Who is this guy and why should I vote for him?”


    • cunninjo says:

      I have not seen any candidate from either party present a clear plan for creating jobs. I suspect the reason is that there is no practical policy that will create long-term employment. The jobs will come slowly on their own.

      Any voter looking for a candidate that will magically make this recession end will be greatly disappointed.  

      • jpsandscl says:

        stop promoting the out-sourcing an doff-shoring of ever damned job in America. It is one of my greatest disappointments in Obama that he has not pressed this issue as he said he would. I work for a large technology software company where we have sent and are still sending thousands of high tech software programmer jobs to India. The Indians come here for three months so their American counterparts can train them to take their jobs. It is disgusting in my view and I hate seeing it all the time.

        And this is not a racist sentiment against Indians. They are being smart and acting in their self-interest. Why can’t we do the same?

        • MADCO says:

          What would you propose?

          If ou programmers would just work for less, the Indian programmers would cease to be competitive, right?

          Or did you have something else in mind?

          • jpsandscl says:

            That’s it! We can call it the “Race to the bottom!” Pit every worker in the world against each other and have highly skilled workers in advanced nations with good laws protecting workers rights compete directly against workers where none of that is true. (And let’s not forget how easily we’ll be able to evade tough environmental laws in those business unfriendly and highly regulated developed countries too!)

            You really are a smart one MADCO.

            Oh, wait, I guess we can’t call it that because it already has a name. It’s called “globalism” and is propounded by Thomas Friedman in his “Lexus and the Olive Tree” among others and all their acolytes are in thrall to the idea.

            Way to go sell your country right down the drain!

            • MADCO says:

              Making fun of me doesn’t answer the question: What do you propose?

              Unless it does.

              • jpsandscl says:

                I propose taxing every job sent overseas to a lower wage and lower worker protection country until we have parity in the labor markets.

                There are communities (like Greenwood Village, where I work) that make it mandatory that any employees brought into the area to do work that could otherwise be done by Americans or those already living here (green cards, etc) be paid the prevailing wage for that work and not some discounted low wage rate. Unfortunately, this is why my company brings them here for training and quickly sends them back ti India where they get the benefit of the low wages.)

                Also, for every American job sent overseas, the off-shoring company should have to provide full re-training for any employee displaced to enable them to find comparable work at a comparable wage.

                As a society, I think we should do something akin to David’s GI bill, but I think it needs to be much more than just education and/or jobs training because if we’re sending all the work overseas, there won’t be any jobs for those highly educated and trained individuals when they’re done anyway. So this would also have to be a part of a larger program of jobs creation in high tech fields like maybe green energy production and manufacturing, R&D, etc.

                And finally, I think our infrastructure does need major work, from roads and bridges to our power grid to schools and hospitals, there is an enormous amount of pent up work in construction and engineering in this country which needs to be done. David makes it sound like 20 years of work for tens of millions is not enough, but it would carry many to retirement and beyond and get us over the baby-boomer bulge in SSN current account deficits.

                These are a few ideas off the top of my (pointy) head.

              • jpsandscl says:

                work for international support for organizing workers and getting environmental and labor laws internationally up to western standards. Like the UN Bill of Rights suggests every human being on earth should have the same rights and protections, not just the fortunate few born in developed countries.

        • bud says:

          Thankfully, he still has his job.  I am in the process of retraining for another career, since I don’t expect the jobs to return and I don’t have the time to wait and see if they do.  I would like Congress and Obama to stop the tax credits to companies that send jobs overseas.  It seems the least they can do.

          • jpsandscl says:

            and sorry to hear you’re going through this. I’ve been unemployed a couple of times in the past decade and had to struggle mightily to regain employment at a level to sustain my family and myself. I work in telecom which was ravaged in Colorado in the early 2000s. So I feel your pain.

            I wish you the best of luck, our political disagreements notwithstanding.

  7. caroman says:

    Not only did he enter the race too late, I’ll never forget the call I got on a Sunday morning in January from a Romanoff staffer asking me and other Bennet supporters to show up at AR headquarters on Monday for a “big announcement”.  It was clear that he was going to switch to the Governor’s race, but he hadn’t even talked to Hickenlooper yet!  By that Sunday afternoon, the “big announcement” was off.  WTF?

    And, let’s not forget the Pat Caddell factor.  Willingness to be affiliated with that scumbag was inexcusable.  It destroyed, or should have destroyed, any claim to being a progressive.  Kudos to the Pols blogger who found the Caddell video and posted on this site.  (I’ve still gotta learn how to do that.)

  8. Gray in Mountains says:

    was Stryker2 and Wade Norris

  9. Ralphie says:

    From my blog last night:

    Slime can get you close. But once you’re close, you have to make the sale. You have to convince people that you’re worth voting for. That’s where the Romanoff campaign broke down. It never made the sale.

  10. jpsandscl says:

    but I find it strange to have so many fine grained details available so soon after the campaign is over. How do we know Bennet’s campaign made 500,000 calls? And why don’t we know how many Romanoff’s made? I know I made hundreds and there were a lot of other people at AR’s HQ making a lot more than me.

    Also, I think this is one of those “viral” kind of issues, where the narrative gets set in people’s minds early on and the echo chamber quality of our system reinforces that narrative. I agree Andrew could have done a clearer job articulating the problem of big money in our political system without trying to make Michael into a pol whose votes could be bought so cheaply ($2400 to switch a vote). It undermined the larger argument which I believe has merit that we are drowning in money in our system and it gives undue influence to corporations over people.

    • Colorado Pols says:

      Romanoff always had a message problem, and it was frequently discussed. Same with the fundraising.

      • RedGreen says:

        how he could have done “a clearer job articulating the problem of big money in our political system,” as jp suggests, since that’s basically all he talked about the last couple months. The problem wasn’t the clarity of the message, it was the message — as Pols said, it was too insider and insufficiently tied to kitchen-table concerns Romanoff has, at other times, articulated so well.

        • jpsandscl says:

          I think he muddied the water a lot by making it seem he was accusing Bennet of particular voting fraud or malfeasance (selling his vote for $2400). What should have been discussed more was the whole money culture in our politics of which Bennet was a part.

          I think it lost clarity when it seemed that Bennet was corrupted in particular when the bigger issue I perceive is that business just supports the candidates and issues which it expects will most likely follow its line of reasoning and work against those who don’t.

          I think this goes to the heart of the matter of calling corporations “persons” under the law with all the rights and appurtenances of personhood, including free speech rights as expressed in campaign donations. I find that abhorrent.

  11. reubenesp says:

    Even a 10-Sec. Ad excerpted from his Sep. ’09 Wash. Park Denver kick-off speech could have won it for him.  I just viewed the full video today at Westword for the first time and it was truly inspirational.  How could he have gone so seriously off message?


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