The two of us recently published a book about the highly successful Obama presidential campaign of 2008. From our research we distilled 10 lessons for 2012 Republican primary candidates called (with apologies to Saul Alinsky) “Rules for Republicans” (The Weekly Standard, January 2-9, 2012). With the Republican primary now behind us, it is fair to ask: How is the Romney campaign doing?
First, the good news. Romney campaign headquarters is located far outside Washington, D.C. (unlike the Clinton and McCain campaigns of 2008). The Romney campaign has developed a state-by-state electoral strategy with multiple avenues to victory. The campaign has made it clear that it will reject public financing and its attendant spending limits (unlike the McCain general election campaign of 2008). The Romney campaign is running a strong ground game, especially in the battleground states. And the rumored names of potential vice-presidential running mates are largely solid and promising.
There is also bad news. There are three major areas in which the campaign urgently needs to sharpen its focus, and these areas are absolutely critical to success. We outline them here in three “Rules for Romney.”
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? These questions—which are all really the same question—are not easy to answer. In answering them, you are defining your brand.
To date, the closest you have come to defining yourself is that you are not Barack Obama. This is a decent start, but no one else is Barack Obama either, and you need to say what it is you will do if you are elected. Why should the American people vote for you? What will you do differently from a second-term Barack Obama? You say you know how to create jobs and grow the economy. Fair enough. But how will you do this? You have to tell the American people what you are promising them.
The field is wide open. The Obama 2012 presidential campaign is a sad contrast to his 2008 campaign. It is hard to believe that this is the same candidate and the same team of senior advisers. To say that there is no big idea comparable to “change we can believe in” in 2008 is to vastly understate the poverty of the current Obama campaign. Barack Obama has no ideas to which majorities of the American people feel any emotional connection. He has almost nothing to say about his record, which is dismal, or about his plans for a second term, which are nonexistent. Unlike 2008, he offers no reason for anyone to vote for him; his only option is to attack you.
That is why you need a simple, positive, and emotive idea around which to present yourself to the American people. Prove that your big idea speaks to the hopes and fears of the American people. Let average Americans speak for the agenda which flows from your big idea. Run a series of political commercials in which Americans from all walks of life describe how your plans will help them. Decent, ordinary people can express in their own words the benefits of your ideas. Let them do that. Let them communicate to their fellow citizens why they should vote for you. Let them prove that ordinary Americans feel an attachment to you, to your vision of the future, and to how your agenda will help them.
Rule 2: Sell your benefits, not your features. What do voters know about you? They know your background. They know you were a businessman at Bain Capital, that you were governor of Massachusetts, and that you saved the Salt Lake City Olympics. But let’s be clear: Electoral success is not about services rendered or experiences accumulated. It is about promises for the future.
How do successful business marketers sell their products? They do not list the features, or qualities, of their products; they demonstrate the benefits of their products for people in the real world. Consider the oft-run television cell phone commercial. A woman is alone in a parking lot at night. Her car will not start. She is scared. She places a call on her cell phone. Will the call go through? The call goes through, and she feels safe. That is how you show people the benefits of your product, not by listing statistics about cell phone capabilities.
In political campaigns this means that you do not put your biography, however eminent, at the center of your campaign. You have to explain to voters the benefits of voting for you, not your background or qualifications or experience. John McCain and Hillary Clinton 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. What is important is how your experience can get voters where they want to go. How is your campaign demonstrating this?
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).