Editor’s Note: I am very pleased to introduce a new contributor to Research Access – Matt Simon. Matt will be writing regularly for Research Access about political marketing and research topics. He worked in Washington, DC, for 23 years as a political writer, magazine editor, and producer, including eight years as producer of “Face-Off,” a national daily debate program featuring US Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain. He is founder of the Seattle-area Eastlake Digital Group, which specializes in social media marketing. Matt can be reached at [email protected].
Don’t Hurt Me?
Envy not political marketers—particularly those connected with the 2012 US presidential race. Why? Well, before we get to the specifics of 2012, I’ll start by confessing that my many years in Washington, DC, made it physically difficult for me to type the phrase “political marketer.” I was instantly visited by three ghosts from workplaces past, all with very nervous stomachs, who peered over my shoulder at my screen and said, respectively, “You’re off message!” “Don’t say ‘marketers’!” and, “We’re ‘advocates for a secure tomorrow’—I think. Let me get back to you on the exact wording.”
Don’t let my facetiousness deceive you into thinking that political marketing is actually cool, sexy, or even very satisfying. Sure, if you’re a high-level campaign operative, you’ll be seen on television occasionally, for two-to-three seconds, clutching a portfolio, perspiring, and walking quickly behind your happily waving candidate/product. (You might even, if your lotto number comes up, end up with a political appointment that will leave you well-connected for life.) And regardless of your status within a campaign, you’ll celebrate the occasional heart-felt victory.
But mostly, you will worry, day and night, about things you can’t even begin to control. If Mitt Romney can be taken at his word that he’s “able to sleep pretty well” when Newsweek calls him a “wimp,” it tells us nothing about his marketers, who doubtless lie awake at night wishing they could think about the future of the campaign, but instead find themselves overcome with concern about whether they’ll still have jobs in the morning.
This makes for a good segue from the overall hideousness of life on the campaign trail to the marked peculiarities of the 2012 presidential campaign. And with no clear answer in my own head, I’ll ask: If you’ve ever dreamed of being part of a major political campaign, which mystery world would you prefer to enter—that of President Obama or that of Governor Romney? (You’ll find this question more interesting if you consider it without respect to the candidate you’re supporting.)
The first peculiarity to ponder is that neither major political party has yet to hold a convention, one party has no vice-presidential candidate, yet both campaigns, based solely on early polls of “registered” voters, have entered what look like home-stretch strategies; the big money, on both sides, is being spent on saturation bombing via negative television ads in identified “swing” states. Responsible pollsters have yet to release data on what “likely” voters think—traditionally a far more accurate indicator of public opinion. If you live in a solidly red or blue state, you might have no idea that an October-like final campaign push is already playing out in advance of both party conventions—even before the Perseid Meteor Shower—in states such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. Maybe the political marketers know best, and maybe their pockets are deeper than usual, but it’s a long way to November. And as I again suggest, both sides are operating in mystery worlds.
The second peculiarity of 2012 is the Mitt Romney campaign. Leave alone that he is the daily target of attack ads by Obama. (At least in “swing” states; the rest of us have been able to watch the Olympics with a minimum of annoyance during commercial breaks.) Romney has still to cool the tempers of detractors in his own party; Sarah Palin has not yet been invited to speak at the GOP Convention, Tea Party members feel betrayed, etc.
Some fence-mending is always a prelude to any party convention. But Romney’s problems run deeper. He’s been a candidate for president since 2008, and in the eyes of many astute observers, he has survived two rounds of Republican primaries without yet succeeding at branding himself.
Veteran political analyst and forecaster Charlie Cook, who, taking note of President Obama’s sagging ratings, wrote, “A willingness to fire the president . . . is only one step. Voters also have to be willing to hire Romney.” Cook went on to note that Romney has never been defined or marketed in such a way as to make voters feel, “Wow, what an impressive person. We would be lucky to have them as our leader!”
Surely, many tepid supporters of Romney agree. The Newsweek sub-head on the Romney “wimp” cover read, “Is He Just Too Insecure To Be President?” While this may have generated partisan anger, the headline surely would have turned more heads in surprise if it had read, “Is He Just Too Bold To Be President?”
Marketing Romney cannot be very satisfying. During his recent overseas trip, aimed at showing that he knows “foreign affairs,” he was gaffe-prone and/or simply unlucky in all three countries he visited. After sparking controversy in England and Israel, his Poland visit received the least media coverage. Traveling there to repeat his sound bite that Obama pulled the rug out from under Poland on missile defense, he emerged from a meeting with former President Lech Wałęsa only to find street crowds chanting, “O-Ba-Ma! O-Ba-Ma!”
Which brings us to our third peculiarity of the 2012 presidential election, and another good reason to remain, at least for now, a nonpolitical marketer: the Obama campaign.
No one doubts that Obama was much more successfully launched—as a wildly popular keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention—and branded, during his genuine trial by fire in the 2008 primaries against Hillary Clinton. As President, he also managed, for better or worse, to deliver early on his promise of passing national healthcare reform.
From there, Obama has been in a constant battle against the economy. Many analysts see it as a far greater threat to his reelection than Romney is. Thus, when the Dow tops 13000, it’s a low-blood-pressure day in the Obama camp. But when some economists look at other indicators and worry about a new recession, Obama marketers don’t sleep well.
Obama spends against Romney, but he clearly sees his challenger as the economy, about which his team can do nothing. Meanwhile, he looks less and less like the fiery brand name created in 2008, and responds more and more frequently to tough questions with safe and even timorous answers. Marketing Obama cannot be very satisfying.
More than three months remain before the general election. Three months, two party conventions, and three presidential debates. But for now, both candidates have fallen into a holding pattern of selective big spending on media and public hesitancy.
Watching them recalls a classic line, paraphrased, from the television series The West Wing. The late Ron Silver, playing presidential campaign manager Bruno Gianelli, loses his temper over what he sees as politics at its most sniveling and shouts, “I’m tired of working for candidates . . . who cowered in the corner and said, “Please! Don’t hurt me!”
If you are seeking fun, inspiration, or self-fulfillment in 2012, would you really want to be part of either US presidential campaign team?