Why Political Parties should have Marketers run their Campaigns Part 2: The US election

This is a follow up to the blog I wrote last year on why Political Parties should have Marketers run their campaign.

First let me say, that I have no partisan interest in any political party but am writing this blog as a marketing professional and someone who writes on marketing topics which deal with government and non-profit organizations.

My key point in my initial blog was that most people who run political campaigns are adept at communications tactics but have probably never read a marketing book and think that tactics and strategy is the same thing. They’re not. Even the media when they refer to political marketing strategies are usually talking about tactics not strategy.

My blog discussed the Marketing Warfare approach to strategic marketing which was developed by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

To illustrate their point, Ries and Trout compare marketing to a football game. If a team simply identifies the goal line and moves the ball toward it without regard to the competing team, they most likely will be blocked in their efforts. To win the game, the team must focus its efforts on outwitting, outflanking, or over-powering the other side. This is the case in football, war, and marketing, according to Marketing Warfare.

Let`s look at the most recent election in the USA.

According to Ries and Trout, the main competitor is the market leader that holds the majority of the market share i.e. the government in power (Democrats). The best strategy for a leader or in this case the incumbent is a defensive one. Note the Democrats were clearly in a defensive mode trying to protect their lead and not take too many chances. The President did not run on his record, or his platform, but simply contrasted his party’s values with those of the Republicans, reminding his supporters on whose side he was on and which side his competitors were on. It proved to be the right strategy — but it could not have worked without a major assist from the Republicans. (More on that later)

The number two (challenger) best strategy is an offensive attack (i.e. the Republicans) on the market leader. The strength of the leader’s position is of primary importance because the leader has the top position in the mind of the consumer, and it is this position that must be attacked.

A weakness in the leader’s strength must be found. Simply attacking any weakness is insufficient. For example, the leader may develop policies or programs which are similar to the challenger. The leader usually has the resources to defend against an attack against its weaknesses, whereas there may be weaknesses inherent in the leader’s strengths that cannot be defended.

The challenger should attack on as narrow a front as possible. Generally, this means focusing on programs and policies where the leader is weak and cannot adopt as it would destroy their overall strategy. The reason for keeping the attack narrow is the principle of force; a narrow attack allows the challenger to concentrate their resources in the narrow area.  In this case, the Republican`s selected the economy as their key focus.  Obama was vulnerable during this campaign. Unemployment was hovering around 8% near the end of his term and no President had been re-elected since 1936 when it was above 7.2%. Congress was deadlocked, his signature domestic bill, Obamacare, was unpopular, and U.S. debt was growing at an unsustainable rate. Perfect scenario for the incumbent!

So what happened on November 6th?  The Republicans nearly won. Had about 300,000 votes gone the other way in four states — Florida, Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire — Mitt Romney would be the president-elect today. The GOP kept control of the House, gave up but two Senate seats, and added at least one state governor.

As Andrew Coyne points out in his article in the National Post, this was a winnable election for the GOP in a sluggish economy against an incumbent with many economic challenges.

So why did Romney lose?

You are unlikely to win an election in the USA if you are giving away 75% of the Latino vote, nearly all of the African American vote, and substantial margins among Asians, women and young people. As FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver’s Political Calculus discusses in his many blogs in the New York Times it is all about the arithmetic.

It is hard to win moderate and independent voters if you have spent much of the previous primary period  showcasing the  most intemperate voices in your party like  Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and of course “the Donald”. Large numbers of voters outside the GOP’s overwhelmingly white and male base simply could not imagine themselves voting for the party — not so much because of what it stands for as what it is: namely, not them.

As Andrew Coyne points out many voters might have voted for the GOP, were it not so evidently in the grip of a bunch of yahoos. That the GOP came within a couple of percentage points of winning even then suggests it should not be too hard to avoid such defeats in future. All that is required is to:

a)     reach out to voters it has gone to such great lengths to alienate until now, and
b)     stop behaving like yahoos.

Yes Romney had his limitations as a candidate: the stiffness, the rich, out of touch businessman, the serial flip-flops. And no doubt the Obama campaign’s — millions of dollars in harshly negative and unusually personal attack ads — reinforced those weaknesses by doing what Ries and Trout call repositioning the competition .

But it is important to recognize that Romney was already deeply wounded by his own party, through the lengthy primaries opposed by a succession of cranks, extremists and generally unsuitable alternatives.

Romney did himself no good by pandering to the conservative base so overtly (“I am a severe conservative”). But he shouldn’t have had to. The “Moderate Mitt” brand who emerged after the first televised debate against Obama positioned himself as distinctly right of centre by anyone’s standards, championing not only Medicare reform, but a radical overhaul of the tax code.

As for Romney, his message was in constant danger of being drowned out by ill-judged outbursts from members of his party, particularly on the abortion issue. (In retrospect the GOP should have done what Canadian Prime Mime Minister Steven Harper did with the abortion issue during the 2005 election, avoid it like the plague.) What cost Romney the election was less his own cautious conservatism than his party’s Yahooism. It is a marketing brand that no leader running for political office wants to wear in 2012.

There was a similar case in Canada this year where the Wildrose party was leading in the polls in Alberta just days before the election, but seemed to have lost the election partly from Yahooism. Leader Danielle Smith believes two factors kept her upstart Wildrose Party from forming Alberta’s government — controversial comments by two of her candidates and strategic voting (i.e. liberals and new democrats voted for the Progressive Conservatives because of their fear of “yahoos” taking over their province).

What actually happened was as the four-week provincial election campaign drew to a close, Wildrose candidates Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech, both pastors, caused a stir with statements that critics called intolerant. Mr. Leech told a radio station he had an advantage in his Calgary riding because he is white. Edmonton’s Mr. Hunsperger, in a year-old blog posting, said gays will spend eternity in a “lake of fire, hell.”

In the case of the GOP, it’s one thing to be pro-life: many women are. It’s quite another for middle-aged men to be musing publicly about the necessity or otherwise of abortions in cases of “legitimate rape”. The Republicans must accommodate themselves to the changing face of America — not only in its demographic makeup, as in the rapid growth of the Latino population, but in social attitudes. Republicans will have to adapt to this new diversity or they will be “toast” in future elections.

 Another example of poor marketing is the slogans used by the GOP.

As Al Ries points out in an article in Ad Week “a two-sided slogan is like a two-sided knife. It cuts both ways. It says something positive about your brand and something negative about the competition.”

Ries’ thoughts on Romney’s slogan “Believe in America,” is that it’s a nice thought, but it’s a one-sided slogan. It says something positive about Mitt Romney, but what does it say about his opponent? (Remember in marketing warfare the challenger has to take an offensive attack on the market leader.) So let’s look at the slogan and its impact on Obama. Does Barack Obama not believe in America? A country that educated him at Harvard. A country that elected him to the Senate and the Presidency. A country that made him wealthy and world famous. Barack Obama doesn’t believe in America? Highly unlikely.

This begs the question: What does Obama believe in? The No. 1 issue among voters was clearly “jobs,” but Obama couldn’t claim much progress on this issue, at least at the beginning of the campaign, because the economy was in the doldrums. His best approach was to plead for more time to “finish the job.” The slogan used by the Obama campaign which was “Forward” did exactly that. Furthermore, a “Forward” slogan implies that Republicans want to go backward to policies that failed in the past. (Think W).”Forward” is a great marketing slogan because it cuts both ways. (i.e. it says something positive about your brand and something negative about the competition.)

In 2008 the Obama slogan was, “Change we can believe in,” which again was a two-sided slogan according to Reis. With the Republicans in power, John McCain couldn’t exactly advocate “change,” because that would offend his base. The best he could do would be to imply that he would do the job “better than Bush.”

John McCain’s slogans in 2008 were:

  • “Straight talker.”
  • “Best prepared to lead from day one.”
  • “Reform. Prosperity. Peace.”
  • “Country first.”

According to Reis, the only two-sided slogan was the second one (a weak one at that), but it didn’t have a chance of working because of the confusion with the other slogans.

Mitt Romney also ran for the Republican nomination in 2008. But do you remember the slogan he used? Probably not. “True strength for America’s future.”

Ries wonders why the GOP don’t have marketing people developing the slogans for their campaigns.

In the last few weeks, Romney changed his 2012 slogan to “Real change. Day one.” That was also a mistake because it just confused voters about what he stood for.

One effective technique is matching your strength against your opponent’s weakness. (e.g. Marketing Warfare strategy) What is Mitt Romney’s strength? He’s a successful business manager and Barack Obama has no business experience at all.

Reis suggests this two-sided slogan “Let’s run the country like a business”
This slogan would have dramatized the difference between the two candidates.

Romney could have talked about how current politicians have been running various government businesses. In the past year, Amtrak lost $1.3 billion. The Postal Service lost $5.1 billion. Freddie Mac lost $5.3 billion. Fannie Mae lost $16.9 billion.

Such an approach he suggests would have created “howls of anguish” from the competition. But that’s exactly what a political campaign needs to do. Force your opponent to focus on your issue and don’t worry about the negative attacks. You’ll be on the positive side, always the best side to be on.

“Furthermore, Reis states, a “business” focus would have translated well to the global scene. China is a threat, not because of Chinese aircraft carriers, but because of Chinese production facilities. America needs to win in the global marketplace by out-producing and out-marketing our foreign competitors.”

Now if this slogan would have worked or not is debatable, but the point here is that a challenger’s slogan has to be 2-sided as well as take an offensive marketing position.

Many pundits are suggesting that Obama won because of his ground game, his advertising or how his operatives combined “large-scale survey research” with “randomized experimental methods” to gain an edge in voter targeting.

All of these tactics had an impact, but tactics need a solid marketing strategy. It seems that the Obama folks clearly understood marketing and had a solid marketing strategy while the Romney team did not, which is surprising when you consider Romney comes from the world of business.

Let me know what you think.


Come join us for our next social marketing workshops


Social Marketing Planning: Implementing an Effective Campaign

DATE: November 14, 2012

TIME: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

LOCATION: RA Centre, Outaouais Room, 2451 Riverside Drive, Ottawa, ON  K1H 7X7



Social Marketing Strategies and Behaviour Change

DATE: February 06, 2013

TIME: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Location: Delta Barrington Halifax





The Bizarro US Presidential Election of 2012

Barack Obama has had some real difficulties while in office since he has become president. He has lived through a financial collapse, a recession and huge fiscal deficit bequeathed by the Bush administration, and very uncooperative bunch of Republicans in Congress. But, each day, he must thank God for the state of today’s Republican Party. He must especially be thankful for the roster of Republican presidential candidates in the past 12 months. .

Has anyone who has followed politics ever seen such a poor group of contenders:

Romney (Voters sense a lack of character in someone for a job that demands bedrock principles and core beliefs), Gingrich (unfaithful to two wives, and abandoned one of them in a time of serious illness), Paul (American Firster and isolationist) and the rising Santorum (social conservative who is against contraception). And let’s not forget Herman Cain (philanderer and sexual harassment allegations), Rick Perry (what was his problem I forget), Michele Bachmann (Sarah Palen kindred spirit) and Donald Trump (his main issue, Obama’s birth certificate).

Polls show Mr. Obama beating all of the candidates still in the running, despite an approval rating hovering around 50 per cent.

The distinguishing characteristic of this Republican competition for the leadership of the party, apart from the weak candidates, is that the party’s various subgroups can’t stand one or more of the candidates. Now that is a recipe for disaster.

The only seemingly sensible candidate is Mitt Romney, but it seems that the evangelicals, Tea Partiers, and all other extreme conservatives don’t trust, like or support him. Despite Mr. Romney’s kowtowing to their issues, and for all his millions, including millions from supporters, he just can’t seem to “make the sale”. He is actually trailing in Michigan the state he was born and brought up.

And the more Mr. Romney tries to placate these groups, the less electable he will be when it counts: in the November election, especially with independents. But the longer it takes for him to win the nomination, the more the voters will see his meagre competition, the sight of whom in a serious political party will cause sensible voters to wonder what happened to the Grand Old Party.  Clearly the party has been taken over by right wing fanatics. The party of Rockefeller, Eisenhower, and even Reagan does not exist anymore. It is quite ironic that many of the candidates continually use Reagan as the leader they would like to emulate, but the irony, if Reagan were running for the leadership of the GOP today he would be considered too moderate.

About a year ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham actually said that Ronald Reagan “would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.

Why? Because he raised taxes, he made deals with Democrats; he compromised on things in order to move the ball down the field. As president, he gave amnesty to 7 million illegal immigrants. As governor, Reagan increased spending, raised taxes, helped create the nation’s first state-based emissions standards, signed an abortion-rights bill, supported unions, and expanded the nation’s largest state-based Medicaid program (socialized medicine). source

One of the major problems for the Republicans is that they are enamored by “supply-side” economics. It is an easy sell. Think about it. Cutting tax rates stimulates the economy to such a high level that tax revenues increase. source

Despite the repeated and demonstrated failure of that theory, it remains the anchor of Republican economic thinking. Its political appeal is obvious: that ever-lower taxes will actually increase revenues, which, in turn, will make the country’s bloated deficit disappear. And, by the way, less money for the state will eventually shrink the state, which is good news for those who see the state as a threat to human liberty.

At the end of political cycles, as a general rule, the broad centrist mainstream carries the day and this works in the Democrats favour. So the next few months will be very interesting. You would have thought that with very high unemployment and a very poor economy, including a record breaking deficit the Democrats would be in big trouble in November 2012. But it seems that the Republicans have dug a deep hole for themselves with a lacklustre group of candidates running for leadership of the GOP.

The next few months should be very interesting



The Public Sector … Differences between Americans and Canadians

As a Canadian who is in the public sector marketing business , I have paid close attention to what is happening in the USA recently. I am quite concerned by the perception of many Americans about their government and its capability of delivering programs and services to the American public.

As Andrew Cohen points out in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen

“The political atmosphere in Washington has become unhinged. Just look at the hysteria unleashed by the president’s health care reform. Like citizens of every other industrialized nation with public health care, Canadians do not know what the fuss is about. It is sad to hear the falsehoods about Canadian health care. Lord knows, our system is flawed, which is why we discuss it ad nauseam. But we’re comfortable with interventionist government. American conservatives — who loathed the regulation that gave us the banking collapse — are not, and they are apoplectic about an expansion of the state. Hell, these folks would have opposed the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s.”

Cohen also raises concerns about the way Government and politicians are being portrayed in the USA. He states “In a polarized politics with a shrinking centre, Americans are no longer able to have a civilized conversation. We see this in the undercurrent of violence directed at Obama during those infamous town hall meetings this past summer. ( e.g bringing a gun to a political town hall meeting).  The anger at Republicans rallies were appalling. They speak of Obama’s “legitimacy,” as if he has no mandate to champion health care reform. To his critics, Obama is everything from a Marxist to a Muslim. They say he wasn’t born in the United States. They carry banners crying “Don’t Tread on Me,” as if this were 1776. Inflamed by right-wing talk-show hosts, playing to a society that has gone to the extremes, abetted by a culture of rudeness, a congressman can call the president “a liar” during a speech and his constituents applaud him. So hostile to Obama’s success that they  cheered when Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics last week.”

The reason we are concerned in Canada is, as Cohen puts it ” there are no more similar peoples in the world than Canadians and Americans”.  We share more than we admit. It is why we can only admire the excellence and ambition of America, and the epochal ascent of its new president.”

The discussion between the differences between Americans and Canadians is not a new one.

In the late eighties in the book Continental Divide Seymour Martin Lipset returned to a topic which had fascinated him since early in his long and distinguished career as a political scientist: the similarities and the differences between the United States and Canada. Lipset’s main thesis was that the differences between the United States and Canada can be traced to their founding. The United States, the revolutionary nation, was founded on the principles of  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In contrast, the “Fathers of the Canadian Confederation” were seeking  “peace, order, and good government.” Lipset focused on the values of the two societies–the United States prizes individualism; Canada, collectivism.

Michael Adams in his book Fire and Ice also wanted his readers to know that there are some very fundamental differences that have developed between Canada and the USA. For example, he refers to the ‘revolutionary tradition’ in the U.S.A as opposed to the ‘counter-revolutionary tradition’ in Canada, the contrasting attitudes Americans and Canadians have towards the roles of government, and the quite different beliefs they have about the role of religion in their daily lives.

With respect to the public sector  in the USA, we hear critics of government stating that we don’t want government to take over our health system. A question nobody seems to ask is: what is wrong with  having government taking over health care. This is how it is done in every other industrialized country. Is the private sector sacrosanct? Most of the health insurance has been managed and run by the private sector for the past few decades. Now if they were doing such a splendid job I might understand the reluctance to have government involved in the health care system but the opposite is true. As stated in previous blogs:

The U.S. has the most bureaucratic health care system in the world. More than 31 percent of every dollar spent on health care in the U.S. goes to paperwork, overhead, CEO salaries, profits, etc. The provincial single-payer system in Canada operates with just a 1 percent overhead. 10% of Canada’s GDP is spent on health care for 100 percent of the population. The U.S. spends 17 % of its GDP but 15 percent of its population has no coverage whatsoever and millions of others have inadequate coverage. Is this a record to be proud of ???

Part of the reason for this is uninsured and underinsured people in the U.S. still get sick and eventually seek care. People who cannot afford care wait until advanced stages of an illness to see a doctor and then do so through emergency rooms, which cost considerably more than primary care services. What the American taxpayer may not realize is that such care costs about $45 billion per year, and someone has to pay it. This is why insurance premiums increase every year for insured patients while co-pays and deductibles also rise rapidly. Also the spending gap between the two nations is almost entirely because of higher overhead. Canadians don’t need thousands of actuaries to set premiums or thousands of lawyers to deny care. Even the U.S. Medicare program run by the government has 80% to 90% lower administrative costs than private Medicare Advantage policies. And providers and suppliers can’t charge as much when they have to deal with a single payer.

Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee clearly demonstrated in their book Marketing in the Public Sector that there are many government programs run quite well. They offer dozens of marketing success stories from agencies of all types–from around the world.

Yes, there are many government programs poorly run but the view that the government is not to be trusted to run any program is quite doctrinaire. Was it not the financial companies in the private sector in the USA responsible for the financial mess we have worldwide? These were not government run operations. What about General Motors, Chrysler which have received large bailouts in the USA and Canada . Were these companies run by the government?

I can go on but you get my point.

As usual I would love to hear from any of the readers of the blog to provide me with their comments.