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