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Rules for Republicans

Use Obama’s playbook against him.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By JEFF BERGNER and LISA SPILLER
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The two of us​—​a marketing professor and a political analyst​—​have just published a book about the highly successful Obama presidential campaign of 2008. We have distilled a number of lessons from our research. Since the Obama camp already knows these lessons firsthand, we call them “rules for Republicans” and have presented them to a number of the 2012 Republican presidential campaigns. In summary, here they are: 

"OOPS" sign

The Obama brand isn’t what it used to be.


Rule 1: Define your “big idea.” What is the overarching theme of your campaign? What is the first thing you want people to think and say about you? What do you stand for? What does your candidacy mean? This is harder than it looks. In answering these questions​—​which are really all the same question​—​you are creating your brand. In doing so, remember two things. First, a successful brand will reflect what people actually want, not what you think they should want. Your campaign needs to be voter-centric, not candidate-centric. You are a vehicle for responding to the hopes and fears of the American electorate. Second, your brand must connect with voters emotionally, not just rationally. Your campaign must speak to voters personally and create an emotional bond between you and them. “Change” was a beautiful brand in 2008.

Rule 2: Sell your benefits, not your features. Electoral success is not a reward for past services rendered; it is about promises for the future. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has correctly said, “It’s not where you are that matters, it’s where you’re headed.” Do not put your biography, however eminent, at the center of your campaign. Your “experience” is not important in itself; what’s important is how your experience can get voters where they want to go. You have to explain the benefits of voting for you, not tediously list your qualifications. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain found this out the hard way in 2008. If your campaign is centered around your “experience” or your “record” or your “competence,” you are on the road to defeat. Your biography is useful only in a supporting role. You need to put front and center what President Bush 41 dismissed as “the vision thing.”

Rule 3: Do not dilute your positions to win over middle-of-the-roaders. If that worked, the moderate John McCain would have defeated the very liberal Barack Obama. And Jimmy Carter would have defeated Ronald Reagan. You will never win the presidency by being the lesser of two evils; you have to attract voters to win. Boldness, directness, and honesty will trump subtlety and nuance every time. Just ask Mike Dukakis, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, or John Kerry. Stand for something.

Rule 4: Do not let the Obama campaign brand you. Brand him. Your campaign must clearly shape the choices for the American voter. If you do not, the Obama campaign will do it for you​—​to your detriment. You must relentlessly advance your own brand, and you must relentlessly aim to brand President Obama. If you are not on the offensive, you will be on the defensive. You may not like this, but you have no choice about it if you want to win. 

Rule 5: Locate your campaign headquarters outside of Washington, D.C. You will be running against Washington. This may seem obvious​—​though somehow it wasn’t to the Clinton or McCain campaign in 2008. Even the ultimate Washington insider​—​the president of the United States​—​is locating his headquarters far from Washington. Why would you do otherwise? 

Rule 6: Develop an electoral strategy with multiple avenues to success. You can’t take for granted the states that John McCain carried in 2008, but you can reasonably expect to win them. The 2012 election will be all about the same 16 “battleground states” it was in 2008. Compete aggressively in all of them. You have good reason to think that the Republican nominee can recapture Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. Beyond these three states, you need to pick up only Florida, Ohio, and one other state to prevail with 270 electoral votes. Give yourself multiple ways to reach 270. A corollary: Don’t waste your time and resources where you can’t win. And don’t waste your time with demographic groups you will never win over. Choose the markets that are advantageous to you; it is a mistake to try to convert your clear opponents.

Rule 7: Quickly and categorically reject public financing. Do not be defensive about this. If a longtime champion of public financing like Barack Obama can turn his back on public financing when it suits him, this should be easy for you. Be as cavalier about it as he was in 2008. Raise as much money as you can. Cede no financial advantage to the Obama campaign; there’s nothing in it for you to participate in another lopsided financial contest like 2008. Focus especially on the Internet to raise funds​—​it is the quickest and easiest way to do so.

Rule 8: Run a good ground game. Nothing beats your or your surrogates’ direct contact with the voters. Take a page from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s 2008 playbook: Do not treat your staff and volunteers as pawns, but as valued customers and colleagues. Provide them with tangible and intangible rewards throughout the campaign. This is the path to creating an army of committed volunteers, a legion of Internet supporters, and, by the way, vastly expanded Internet fundraising.

Rule 9: Consider someone like Marco Rubio as your running mate. You need to bring energy and freshness to your campaign. Choosing Sarah Palin was not wrong in 2008; letting her twist in the wind in the face of media attacks was. A positive, Reaganesque running mate like Marco Rubio will help you. The fact that he is Hispanic will help even more. And the fact that he is from Florida makes choosing him a trifecta. A bit of the “cool factor” will be a big help, especially with younger voters who will not be as monolithically for Obama the second time around. Choose someone obviously fit to succeed you as president if necessary, and neither the Obama campaign nor the press will get traction in suggesting otherwise.

Rule 10: Go all in. The vast majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. A sizable number believe the country’s very future is at stake in this election. Act like it. Do not pull your punches, especially in a vain and benighted effort to curry favor with the media. The days of neutral media, if they ever existed, are over. The media are partisan, as in the early days of the republic; they have chosen sides. You must​—​or at least your campaign and surrogates must​—​take on Barack Obama directly. When you are criticized for doing so, know that you are having an effect. Double down on it. Your media critics are not your friends​—​they are on the other team. Be absolutely insensitive, even impervious, to any and all media criticism. Your market is the electorate, not the media. And one more thought: The most devastatingly effective form of negative campaigning is ridicule. This is liberalism’s tool against Republicans, and the left hates it when it is turned against them. That’s why the Paris Hilton “celeb” video was the most effective ad of the McCain campaign. Ridicule exposes how joyless, humorless, and brittle is today’s political left.

Lisa Spiller, a professor of marketing in the business school of Christopher Newport University, and Jeff Bergner are authors of Branding the Candidate (Praeger). 

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