9 Lessons the Republicans (and You) Can Learn from the Election
We don’t usually talk politics in this space, but the US presidential election which just ended offers some fascinating lessons on marketing, promoting a movement or cause – and also why playing safe is the riskiest thing you can do in the new world. In his core Romney may really be a Massachusetts moderate, but as far as the campaign he ran, it was classic conservative “safe” choices, and ultimately those safe choices did him in.
2012 was supposed to be the year for Republicans. They were licking their chops: High unemployment, sputtering recovering, war fatigue, and an incumbent president who had promised hope and change and seemed to deliver lowered expectations. No president since FDR has won reelection with unemployment over 7.1 percent.
So where and how did it all go so wrong?
Some GOP stalwarts want to argue that it was a conspiracy by the elite liberal media, bad luck timing of super storm Sandy, or the bromance between the president and Governor Christie. But they’re missing out on some very important lessons.
These lessons offer insight on how the Republicans can become relevant again, the ways social media and technology has changed marketing, and the role they can play in leading a tribe. So today’s post is part political rant, part marketing insights, part training on success. Read it and take what you will from it.
Here are the 9 Lessons from the Romney Defeat:
1) People Follow Leaders not Managers. America isn’t looking for a CEO in Chief they want a Commander in Chief. Ideas matter. And the bigger the forum, the bigger the ideas need to be.
People today are desperately looking for someone to lead them. Mitt Romney never painted the vision of the future he wanted to build for America. He spent the entire primary season tearing down his opponents with slash and burn attack ads. Then he spent the whole general election running against the president’s jobs record. But when you’re only attacking the platform of the other side, it means you’re not offering your own vision.
Romney never realized it until too late, but the tagline for this election was actually, “It’s not the economy, stupid.” Most people said the economy was on the wrong track, most people thought Romney was a better businessman, and most people thought Romney would create more jobs. And more of these people voted for the president than Romney. They saw Romney as a better manager, but when they elect a president, they’re looking for a leader.
“It’s the economy, stupid” looked like a safe strategy because it worked so well for President Clinton. But that was a different moment in time. The world changes and what used to be safe often becomes risky. In the post 9/11 world, people still want jobs and worry about financial security. But terrorism, nuclear proliferation, war, and other issues are important to them and their desire for leadership in those areas sometimes causes them to downplay their own pocketbook.
2) Wars are Won on the Ground.
From Patton to Rommel, to Dayan, the greatest generals understand an army only moves as far as its fuel and supply line. Romney won the nomination with his superior ground game and lost the election with an inferior one.
In the primary Mitt was running against a rag tag collection of second tier candidates and he used his money and organization to get out the vote and collect delegates. In the general election, he didn’t have such an overwhelming money advantage and he was seriously outgunned on the ground game.
Romney outsourced most of his state offices to the Republican Party. The Obama campaign machine had offices and staff set up in the 12 swing states before the 2008 election and they never left. That seems like an unfair advantage, but the truth is, Mitt has been running for president as long as Barack Obama has. In Florida, the GOP opened six offices. The Obama campaign had 1,100.
Mitt has a small inner circle of people he trusts. He played it safe with a team he trusted from his Massachusetts days. They were fiercely loyal but no one at the top had ever run a true national campaign. They were outcoached and outplayed at every turn by the experienced Obama team.
The Romney team had “Project Orca,” which was supposed to enable poll watchers to record voter names on their smartphones as voters checked in. The plan was this would give HQ real-time turnout data, so they could direct resources throughout the day as needed. They had 37,000 swing state volunteers lined up for this program. In Colorado, it was a complete meltdown.
What actually happened is the app didn’t work, or people couldn’t figure it out. The PINs issued were wrong and the replacement ones didn’t work any better. Hundreds of volunteers in Colorado were told it was a local mess up, but it was working everywhere else fine. Interestingly enough, the same process happened in North Carolina and those volunteers were told it was only a local issues and Orca was working everywhere else fine. Anecdotal evidence from Virginia and other swing states confirms similar scenario: A bunch of frustrated volunteers who couldn’t get information and futile calls to the campaign that were never answered.
Contrast that with the Obama machine: They had an airtight structure in place to identify and get out every last possible vote. They contacted people hundreds, sometimes thousands of times through social media. The Republicans are about five years behind the Democrats on social media and that’s about twenty in Internet years! Team Obama knew every possible vote the president could get and they made sure they got to the polls.
David Plouffe even wrote a book about the strategy (“The Audacity to Win,” required reading for all political junkies). In the book Plouffe details exactly how the Obama campaign won the first election and would repeat the process in the next one. I guess nobody from the Republican party read it.
The Republicans had voter lists and made contacts. The Obama machine sliced and diced the lists, micro targeting voters by issues, age and interest. The Romney campaign asked people to donate. The Obama campaign asked people to fight a cause.
If you’re a business, your ground game is customer service and care. If you’re a non-profit, your ground game is showing people how their contributions make a difference. If you’re a political campaign, your ground game is recruiting people into the movement. And getting them to the polls on election day.
Simply asking people to make a purchase or donation gets a certain result. Asking them to be a part of something much bigger than themselves produces a far superior result. Romney sold the fact he could create more jobs. Obama sold the vision of keeping America moving forward. Forward won.
3) Choose Your Associates Carefully.
The GOP got punch drunk with the Tea Party wins in 2010 and thought they had stumbled across a new super power that would slay Democrats. Romney and the rest of the party pandered to the Tea Party and it cost them.
No one did the critical thinking to understand the difference in Tea Party appeal locally versus nationally. Red meat plays well in red states for local elections. Nationally it doesn’t attract independents and moderates. And frankly scares off intelligent women, Latins and Blacks, who were the key to the 12 swing states.
The second issue is what happened to the Tea Party. It started as a noble movement to reduce government, but was soon high jacked by other factions. The language and tone got very bellicose, xenophobic and mean-spirited.
The biggest single mistake Romney made was chasing after Tea Party voters in the primaries. There was no way he was going get their votes against Santorum and Newt anyway. He had enough money and organization to win in spite of that.
But he couldn’t resist joining the conversation about throwing the abuelitas over the 30-foot-high electric fence...
Sixty-five percent of the people voting Tuesday favor having some type of path to legal citizenship. Romney and the Republicans wanted the Tea Party vote (which they would have gotten against President Obama in any event), so they threw the Latins under the bus in their desire to placate the tea-billies down south and out west. (Who wouldn’t vote Democrat if their lives depended on it.) Alienating the Latins cost the Republicans Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
4) Reward Loyalty, but Not If It Takes You Down in Flames.
The Republicans have a very polite and civilized habit: They like to give the nomination to the guy who ran strong but lost and conceded early four years earlier. Instead of choosing the best candidate, they like to nominate the loyal soldier who paid their dues. This very nice habit has a tendency to produce lopsided losses. (Think Dole and McCain.) You want to reward loyalty, but if doing so causes your own self-destruction, there is something dysfunctional in the process. Republicans would be wise to remember one thing: There’s a reason that guy lost last time.
The GOP would be wise to do some serious soul searching about their primary process and the end candidate it produces. As the candidates slogged through 20 debates this year, people kept suggesting that it was producing stronger candidates, like the primaries did for the Democrats in 2008. Not even close.
A little critical thinking would have revealed that in 2008, the Democrats loved the debates because their two top rock stars (Hillary and Obama) were slugging it out. In 2012, none of the Republican rock stars (Christie, Rubio, Jeb, etc.) were even in the process.
The current primary system is quite empowering to the party’s minor figures (philandering pizza makers) and non-mainstream constituencies (like Bachmann and even Ron Paul).
By the time the process winnowed it down to the top three, it eventually produced a choice of candidates that in terms of their stand on social issues would take us back to the 90’s (Newt), the 70’s (Mitt), or the 50’s (Santorum). To field an equal slate, the Democrats would have had to run Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, and George McGovern.
The most important thing any organization ever does – is creating a structure for developing the next generation of leaders.
5) Intellect Matters.
A party that rolls out dimwits like Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin and presents them as their ideological thought leaders cannot expect to be taken seriously by any thinking person.
Just because someone expresses loyalty to the Republican party or shows a willingness to attack Democrats, does not mean they should be held out as leaders of the Republican movement. And yes it should be considered a movement. And movements start with ideas. And ideas start with intellect.
There’s enough blame to go around here, including FOX News Channel. It’s debatable if it has ever been a “news” channel, but its progression over the last few years to a predictable right wing propaganda factory to rival the left wing propaganda output of MSNBC means there is one less source of intelligent debate to foster big ideas in the conservative community. (Although I'm restoring some bonus points to them for having Larry Winget on.)
Karl Rove’s daily need for fresh red meat to throw in the cage has meant giving credible platforms to people with limited intellect like Trump, Bachmann and Palin, all the way to heralding nut cases like the birthers and Sherriff Joe. All this conspiracy theory stuff is good for cable ratings, but seriously dumbs down the party, the ideas it presents, and the caliber of people it attracts.
6) Put Your Best Team on the Field.
If you want to elect a president, the first rule is simple: Don’t nominate bad candidates.
By this I don’t mean candidates that are bad people (although there’s an argument that could be made for that), I mean candidates who are bad at being a candidate.
Being a good candidate is actually a skill. And to be a good candidate, you need to be good at doing five skill sets:
1) Staying on message
2) Conducting interviews
4) Giving speeches
5) Raising money
By nominating Romney, the process produced a candidate that was weak in four of the five skillsets. Mitt could never stay on message and through the whole season let the Obama campaign drive the debate. (Tax returns, Swiss bank accounts, Medicare vouchers, dogs on the roof, a couple of Cadillacs, etc.) You have to stay on your message and force the other side to have your conversation. The Romney campaign played defense the entire time, and that means off message.
Romney is simply dreadful at conducting interviews and he never made an effort to get better. This was apparent from his very first one with Bret Baier from FOX (one of the few actual journalists left over there), when Mitt started stuttering and stammering because he thought the questions weren’t puff ball enough. He spent the entire campaign avoiding interviews. The right appearance on Piers Morgan Tonight and a few other outlets would have humanized him and allowed voters to connect with Mitt. Instead he ran away.
As far as a debater, Romney isn’t great, but neither was the guy he was running against. But he still lost two out of three.
If we look at the skill set of giving speeches, this is another area where playing it safe cost Romney the election. He’s never been comfortable unless he’s robotically channeling his standard stump speech data dump. With the right coaching (and by that I mean someone who would force him to lose all the rehearsing and speak from the heart), he could have been amazing.
I forget what primary it was, but Rick Santorum gave the speech of his life. (The one where he talked about seeing his coal miner grandfather in the casket and marveling at the size of his big hands.) Santorum always spoke from the heart and that really connected with voters. On that particular night, after watching the Santorum concession speech, team Romney ran downstairs and took away the teleprompter for Mitt and told him they needed him to be more human.
Romney told the story of his father traveling the country, selling out of the trunk of his car and he was mesmerizing. That was a candidate America could fall in love with. But the next night, he was back to the safety of his teleprompter and stump speech.
You saw the same thing Tuesday night: Because Mitt hadn’t prepared a concession speech, he came out and gave one of his best speeches ever. If he spoke like that every night, he’d have been giving a victory speech instead. Republicans ridiculed the president for giving beautiful speeches with a teleprompter. But that wins elections.
In fund raising, the last skillset, Mitt scores an A plus, and that’s why he got the nomination. But Republicans would be wise to decide if that serves them. They really need a primary process that produces a candidate who is proficient in all five areas, not just the collecting money one.
In any organization the path to victory requires putting your best team on the field when the championship is on the line. The current Republican primary process does not do that.
6) Take Responsibility for Your Actions. Republicans tried to demonize the president for the deficit and unemployment. Let’s be real here: It will take 40 or 50 years to undo the damage President George W. Bush did to America. I could be glib and say that he almost single-handedly destroyed the world banking and economic system. But that would be as unfair to him as it is to try to pin it all on President Obama. Truth is we can thank the Fed, Alan Greenspan, dreadful regulators, President Clinton (who powered through Community Reinvestment Act beginning the sub-prime lending party), Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and FNMA, for getting all that started, and then credit president Bush with stoking the fire with stupidity. So there was plenty of blame to go around on all sides and voters knew it. To suggest that unemployment and the deficit were the fault of president Obama is like the abusive alcoholic husband blaming his bad marriage on his wife.
Yes the president increased the deficit by a trillion dollars a year. But there was no president of any party that wouldn’t have had to take drastic action and go further into debt when they took over in 2008. This strategy to try and blame it all on president Obama was very disingenuous and ultimately didn’t work.
It all came tumbling down like a house of cards with a couple homespun sentences from the big dog from Arkansas at the Democratic convention: “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was actually pretty simple — pretty snappy. It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.” Oops.
7) Reach Out to Everyone.
You can’t be all things to all people. But if you want to be all things to one people, you’re not going to win many elections either. For decades Republicans have lived on the NASCAR nation to carry them. But a party that relies on whites for 90 percent of its votes will lose in the new reality. A coalition of all-white men isn’t really a coalition, and it gets smaller every four years. The Bubba vote won’t get it done any longer.
Even though Romney probably carried ninety percent of the Bible-thumping Bubba’s – he lost women by ten points, Latins by 40 points, Asians by 50 points, and Blacks by 70 points!
8) Mind Your Own Business
No matter what business you’re in, you have to take care of business. And mind your own business.
The philosophy of nation building and being the world’s policeman isn’t congruent with the idea of less government and it simply doesn’t work. President Bush’s doctrine of “give them liberty or give them death” got us in two wars and bankrupted us. Yet still you hear hawks screaming to send troops to Iran, Syria or Libya.
History since WW II is quite clear that while it may have come from noble intentions, forcing democracy on other nations that aren’t ready for it doesn’t work. We tried in Vietnam, Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, and Iran. Remember the Shah? (Now you could argue that it worked in Japan. But that's kinda cause we dropped a couple nuclear bombs on them first.)
If you’re for less government be for less government. Get out of the bedroom. If you’re morally opposed to same sex marriage, don’t marry someone of the same sex!
You’re not philosophically congruent if you say you’re for States rights and a reduced role for the Federal government, but then you want to legislate your religious beliefs on everyone else.
If you believe that there is a God that created the institution of marriage and made it specifically for a man and a woman, great – join a church that supports and sanctions that view. But the Federal government has no business in that. Get Washington out of the marriage business completely. Let states decide what the requirements are for civil unions and let churches do what they want with marriage for the people of their faith.
9) Be True to Your Values
When Republicans win, it’s when they field a candidate that has a vision of fiscal and social conservative values. Which is why I said in February and March and still believe today, Rick Santorum would have presented a tougher challenge to the president. (But don’t worry, because according to the GOP formula, Santorum already has the 2016 nomination sewed up!)
I think no rational Republican thought Mitt Romney was a credible standard bearer of conservative values. But after he steamrolled his way through the primary, everybody wanted to believe he was a born-again conservative. You expect Karl Rove to spout it, even if he doesn’t believe it because that’s how he feeds his cable channel. And you expect Dick Morris to believe it, because he lives in his own alternate universe. But even Erick Erickson, Ari Fleischer and Alex Castellanos seemed to drink the Kool-aid this time around.
But let’s come back to reality here…
You may be upset your guy didn’t win; I get that. And you may be disappointed that Mitt Romney couldn’t sell this vision of conservative values. But no one should be surprised.