Published November 16, 2012
If early reports are any guide, the Obama campaign will be dissected like no other. But if Republicans are to gain anything from this loss, it must be this: Obama was the better marketer and if the Grand Old Party wants to have a chance of resetting the electoral map they need to respect marketing – something the party simply didn’t do in this election.
This lack of respect was clear from the beginning: the inability of the Romney campaign to ever really project and maintain a consistent picture of their candidate or truly connect with the various segments of the electorate, women, Hispanics and youth, who drove the final result, were obvious signs.
Peter Drucker once said, “There will always, one can assume, be need for some selling. But the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.”
Obama didn’t fit everyone –let’s face it, he didn’t fit almost half the nation’s voters— but he did fit the voters he needed to fit in order to win a sweeping electoral victory and his campaign worked hard to make sure that he did.
This campaign led with active marketing that combined an expertly played ground game with crystal clear positive and negative messaging that resonated in the swing states while also helping to retain the bulk of his 2008 supporters everywhere else. It also listened. A lot to what voters were saying they wanted.
This was because Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, didn’t take anything for granted. When asked by the President to manage his re-election bid, he reportedly informed his boss in no uncertain terms that the honeymoon was over, they were facing a tough fight and could take nothing for granted.
That attitude is the basis for great marketing. Why? Because it sets the stage for the marketer to go out and discover the reality you need if you are going to have your product or candidate sell itself. It’s only by learning what people want that you have a chance of closing the deal.
In other words, Messina was never going to assume some kind of Obama-love or a devoted base was going to get them over the line. In fact, Messina was basically saying he wasn’t going to assume anything at all about the voters he needed to reach.
Like it or not, good marketing depends on the kind of humility that doesn’t count on any votes until they can be counted – and avoids the trap of mistaking that the things that matter to party insiders and ideological stalwarts, matter to the vast majority of voters. A trap, I believe, the Republicans fell into here.
In fact, in a way the Republicans of 2012 seem to have switched places with the Democrats of 1972, not ideologically but emotionally. After all, the Republicans today are acting almost as bewildered as the McGovernites did in 1972 when they lost to Nixon. Why didn’t the nation come along with them? Wasn’t their candidate obviously the more enlightened choice? What was wrong with those voters who chose the other guy? For years, liberal Democrats were made of fun of for exactly the same kind of thing –expecting the world to come to them instead of the other way around (until Clinton forced a change).
In 2012, Republicans never really tried to discover what most voters –especially the voters in the swing states— actually cared about.
What’s more valuable is to dissect what went right for the Obama Campaign. The answer starts with thinking small, not big.
As an academically trained applied research psychologist, my experience is that most people don’t worry about the big things or the big ideas —they worry about the small things like their jobs, their families, and their personal connections with friends and things around them.
For most people, the larger argument that the government is playing too much of a role in their lives –a staple of the anti-big government Republican platform— doesn’t really register. Does everyone really hate ObamaCare as much as the party faithful? I don’t think so.
Messina turned to people like Stephen Speilberg, a man who really gets what works for the masses, and Steve Jobs, who could guide him in terms of how to best connect with voters in a digital age. Jobs also pointed out failings in his strategy and suggested messages that would work better. He consulted with Vogue editor Anna Wintour to learn how to merchandise Obama to generate more impressions and raise money. Messina took it all on board.
He decided to organize the campaign like a large corporation, paying close attention to how best to gather market data, analyze it and then make it available so that staff and volunteers could use it to engage voters. He made sure they had a mobile phone app so they could access critical data in the field and deployed an email campaign that was metric-driven.
Another big part involved message testing and seeing exactly what was working with voters. Something that emerged from this was the decision to play on the GM bailout as a positive.
The principle of letting a big company fail on its merits might have played with free market purists, but it didn’t play with people who thought that giving GM a little breathing room to get its act together would not only save jobs but an industry that could add even more jobs. I also don’t think the Romney campaign ever really understood just how effective the Obama camp claim that Romney had outsourced jobs was in contradicting his pro-business credentials. This claim went to voters basic distrust of corporate America, especially after the global financial crisis.
The Obama campaign also got the segmentation process of their marketing right. They made sure that they gained and kept the women, minority and youth vote.
Let’s consider some of the data. Unmarried women backed the President by an incredible 38 percentage-point margin over Romney. Women in general gave Obama 55% to Romney's 43%, a proportion that was unchanged from the president's lead among women in 2008. Black voters made up 13 percent of the electorate, just as they did in 2008, and Hispanics increased from 9 percent to 10 percent. President Obama won more than 70 percent of Hispanics and more than 90 percent of blacks, according to exit polls. And when it came to the Youth Vote, well people age 18 to 29 made up 19 percent of voters in this election cycle, up 1 percentage point from 2008, and they supported President with 60 percent of their vote, versus 36 percent for Mitt Romney.
According to one researcher, if Mr. Romney had received at least 50 percent of the support of this age group in the swing states of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida, 80 electoral votes would have gone his way, winning him the presidency.
But the Romney campaign didn’t effectively pursue these segments, while, once again, the Obama campaign didn’t take anything for granted and pursued them relentlessly.
The Obama campaign managed to register 1.8 million new voters in the key battlegrounds, nearly double the number the campaign said it registered in 2008. Volunteers made more than 125 million personal phone calls or door knocks. Early voting was another new characteristic of the federal election landscape that the Obama campaign identified and harnessed, giving them a huge advantage in Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio.
Ultimately, the first step Republicans need to take now is to recognize that the electoral map has radically changed, the Democrats own this map and if the Republicans are serious about changing this reality, they will have to learn how to use marketing from their opponents to win it back.