To be perfectly blunt, voters do not much care about experience (or your religion, despite misguided liberal hopes to the contrary). This was the message of the 2008 campaign. It was also the message of the 2010 congressional midterm elections. And why should voters care? Voters look at the country today and what do they see? They see high unemployment, enormous federal deficits, a dangerous and unsustainable federal debt, declining family incomes, a growing poverty rate, ballooning food stamp rolls, declining influence around the world, and people everywhere gaming the system to receive federal benefits. They think to themselves—and they are surely right about this—if this is what all the smart people in the political class have brought us, we do not need any more of it. They also see a political class in Washington that does not seem to understand or care about any of it. Voters do not want to hear one more word about the experiences of the political class; they want to know what you intend to do to address their concerns. What will be different if we elect you?
Rule 3: Go all in. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and a sizable share of those believe the country’s very future is at stake in this election. Go all in. You have done this well on many occasions, and aspects of your campaign have been a refreshing change from the McCain campaign of 2008. But you will come under increasing pressure to dilute your positions to win over so-called moderates. If that strategy worked, the moderate John McCain would be president, not Barack Obama, the most liberal of all 100 U.S. senators. And Jimmy Carter would have defeated Ronald Reagan. You will not win this election by being the lesser of two evils; you actually have to attract voters to win. Boldness, directness, and honesty—the type which you displayed in your speech to the NAACP—will trump subtlety and nuance every time. Just ask Mike Dukakis, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, or John Kerry.
Draw the contrast between you and Barack Obama as sharply as you can. Wherever possible, use his own words and his own voice to portray his arrogance, his empty rhetoric, and his broken promises. Relentlessly advance your own brand and relentlessly brand President Obama negatively. That is what he did to John McCain in 2008; that is what he is trying to do to you in defining you as a wealthy vulture capitalist. There is not a reason in the world that negative branding should work for him and not for you. The only question is who does it better. If you are not on offense, you will be on defense.
Do not pull your punches, especially in an effort to find favor with the national media and the political class. The days of neutral media, if they ever existed, are long gone. The media are partisans, just as they were in the early days of the republic; they have chosen sides. When you or your campaign are criticized for branding President Obama negatively, know that you are having an effect. Double down on it. Your electorate is the American people, not the media.
The Paris Hilton “Celeb” ad, which made fun of Barack Obama’s celebrity status, was the best ad of the McCain 2008 campaign. It unnerved the Obama campaign; it positioned Barack Obama as a self-oriented pop star, not the potential leader of the nation. The most devastatingly effective form of negative campaigning is ridicule. This is the left’s tool against Republicans, and they hate it when it is turned against them. Use it.
In sum, develop a simple big idea that expresses the core of your campaign; develop a clear and easily understandable set of initiatives that flow from this idea; show how these initiatives will benefit ordinary Americans of all walks of life; and intensify your campaign’s focus on Barack Obama’s record of failure. It’s not too late to kick your campaign up a notch. The future of our nation depends on it.
Lisa Spiller, a professor in the business school at Christopher Newport University, and Jeff Bergner are authors of Branding the Candidate (Praeger).