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?
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