Obama Win Proves Paradigm Shift in Communications

Tuesday Nov. 6, 12 noon

My experience in politics is in some ways reflective of the split electorate.  I was raised by a single mother who was very active in Connecticut Republican politics and who herself made a number of runs for local office. I remember many days as a young child sitting in our living room and listening to political meetings, and in some cases listening to candidates speak.  But my first “formal” lesson in politics actually came when I was at Emerson College in the late 1980s, taking a class from a Democratic political operative who earned his stripes running campaigns in the city of Boston.

From my mother I learned the importance of connection, and saw at a young age how speeches – a persuasive message – moved masses.  From the political operative, I was forced to memorize his first lesson of politics, something that’s stuck with me through my work in Washington, as a consultant on Wall Street, as a social media pioneer and now as a writer, and it will prove to be the determining factor in this election: the difference between campaigns to organize and persuade.

The problem for my old political pro, is that the lesson he taught me has been turned on its head, thanks in part to advances in technology, data mining and the use of social media, but largely driven by a shift in how Presidential campaigns are run. It used to be that local elections were conducted to organize voters, and national races (including US Senate races) were about persuading masses. In this paradigm, the race for the Presidency was about marshalling sweeping narratives that moved people, particularly undecided and independent voters, many of whom didn’t show up at local elections. For those old enough to remember, think about the 1988 Willie Horton ad, President Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad or Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad in 1984.

In 2008, President Obama’s team blew up this paradigm. We all know that the President beat Hillary Clinton, but what often goes unnoticed is how they really did it, and that’s exactly the dynamic that’s playing out in this race. People like to point to the fact that the President had then and has now a great “ground game,” and that he has operational advantages when it comes to social media and technology. That may be true, but the bigger picture is that the President is running a campaign to organize, where the communications are more about finding and motivating people than they are about persuading those who are undecided. It may seem nuanced to you – what’s the difference between motivating and persuading after all – but the answer is that there is a huge difference.  The Obama campaign gets this. I think the Romney campaign understands it conceptually, but they never figured out how to translate it because to win the primary they hard to run a campaign to persuade, and they never really made the switch. It’s as if Romney is still talking in my mother’s living room back in the 1970s and 80s, while the President’s people have created the new paradigm for Presidential politics: communications in these races are now used to organize.

What does this mean? There are three major changes when national races are run as campaigns to organize:

The Myth of the Undecided Voter. For months, we’ve heard talk about reaching the undecided voters. Poll after poll after poll focused on the undecided’s and how to reach them. I argue that in large part they do not exist.  The vast majority of people who were undecided going into this weekend won’t vote. Rather, what the candidates have been dealing with is the Disillusioned Voter. Why does it matter? Because, in simple terms, you reach these people in different ways: you persuade the undecided voter, and you organize and motivate the disillusioned voter.  Sadly, one very effective way to organize disillusioned voters is the use of negative ads. Disillusioned voters are not base voters – they’re not the Christian Right and they’re not the Progressive Left. They’re not any one thing in general – which is why you’re seeing different ads in Ohio than you are in parts of Florida, Ohio and Virginia.

Typically, using the old paradigm, one would look at this electorate, see the President’s numbers below 50 and conclude, ‘Romney will win, because the undecided voters will break his way.’ But in the new paradigm, the disillusioned voters from every poll I have read have been breaking about 1:1 for each candidate. That means as the electoral water rises, it’s breaking evenly. The Obama people understood this early on, and have made every effort to use communications to organize their own voters against Romney.

Persuasive communications, as we’ve seen from the Romney camp over the last week in Pennsylvania, can add wind to your sails and contribute to momentum, but in this paradigm they don’t translate to votes on the ground unless they are connected to and run by a campaign to organize. There has been movement as we get closer to election day, and the polls to tighten because disillusioned voters are coming home (or sitting out) but they’re tightening proportionally, and in fact may be leaning slightly to Obama.  In this context, keep in mind that in many of the swing states, over 50% of people have already voted – so to the extent that people are ‘persuadable’ under the Romney paradigm, there are, in fact, fewer people to persuade because many of them have been organized to vote.

Never Organize Your Opposition – That’s the first rule in campaigns to organize, and one the Romney campaign would have done well to heed. What you do in office, as much as what you say, defines who and how you organize, and for the Obama campaign, this election may have been sealed through the auto bailout, Lilly Ledbetter act and immigration issues, particularly for those serving in the military.  For Romney, two issues will haunt his candidacy, and ironically they’re the two issues where he has been least successful in changing or moderating his positions: the auto bailout and immigration. Ironically, Romney himself is to be held accountable for each – not staff or GOP operatives, but the candidate personally. First, it was Romney who put his name on an op-ed arguing that Detroit should go bankrupt. Confusingly, at several points during the campaign, they went out of their way to remind people of this by repeatedly raising the issue, and then to finish it off, they ran the now infamous “Jeep” ad a few weeks ago, erroneously accusing the President of shipping auto jobs to China, which had Romney’s contemporaries (executives at Chrysler) dismissing it.  This ad was meant to persuade working class voters in Ohio when in fact it organized them against him. In addition, Mitt Romney, running in the least white electorate ever, seemingly when out of his way to unnecessarily get to the right of Rick Perry on immigration during the primaries, during one debate talking about fences and self-deportation. No amount of, ‘gee, well I didn’t mean that,’ can turn that vote around, and he is going to lose the Hispanic vote by epic margins.

National Polls are Meaningless. One doesn’t organize the country monolithically – it’s too vast, and in that respect the national polls don’t matter. And as communications are conducted to organize, the demographic shifts are unlikely to show up in national polls — but they will show up in state polls that reflect the newly organized populations. To the extent Romney surged, much could be attributed to picking up disillusioned Republicans, especially in the South. So Romney draws more support from Texas and gets a bump. Or Obama gains strength in California and New York.  In this new paradigm, these national polls only matter in so far as it gives the media a chance to anoint the perceptual winner, and that is important because that narrative alone can move significant numbers (everyone loves a winner), but from a statistical standpoint in a campaign to organize, the national polls are almost irrelevant.

What is relevant is turnout among very specific populations in very specific areas – that’s what communications to organize are all about. So as you watch returns tonight, look at the margins in Tampa, in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and in and around Des Moines, Iowa. Look at the margins among women, latinos and new voters (that’s why Obama has practically been living at College campuses during the month of October). We have sadly spent billions of dollars not trying to reach the electorate or even 9 swing states, but to organize about a million votes in a handful of counties. It’s like the candidates are at once running for Sherriff and President of the United States – it’s a difficult balancing act, one the President has handled more deftly, and one Mitt Romney seems almost constitutionally incapable of managing. Mitt just isn’t a guy you’d seriously consider to be your Sheriff, but you would want him to manage trash collection, and the fact that Mitt the Businessman lost the management debate, solidified by the President’s deft handling of Sandy, shows how the paradigm has shifted under him during this campaign.

We live in a split and pretty evenly divided electorate – as was the case in 2000 and 2004.  Campaigns that recognize this new mindset and use their communications to organize will find themselves operating at an advantage.

But as we will learn from Obama’s impending victory, what you do in office is more important than what you say during a campaign. What the Obama team has never been good at, and what they need to learn, is that Administrations – institutional communications – are about persuasion, not organization.  Yes, one needs to organize to get votes, but that’s an inside game that they have been playing publicly to their detriment. Once the lights dim on this race and we get back to the business of governing, it’s time for the Obama people to learn this lesson and use their considerable communications skills to help bring the country together and move us forward.

— Jeff Kimball

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