DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, November 9, 2012

The 2012 Election: How Come It Turned Out That Way

The 2012 Election is over. (And if that statement leaves you feeling a little low, you can take solace in the fact that it is only 1,457 days until the 2016 vote and GOP potential presidential candidate Marco Rubio is already speaking at a fundraiser in Iowa this weekend). But now it's time to figure out how the winners won and the losers lost last Tuesday. Was it money or message? Data mining or dollar finding? Old standby media like TV or new social media like Twitter? Personality or policy?

Last night, at the National Archives, a distinguished panel of 2 former Democratic Congress members, 2 Republican ex-members, and 2 working journalists began examining those questions during a frank, sometimes feisty program entitled Communicating the Message: Election Results and Ramifications.

This election, with its Super PACS, dark money, incredibly whopping contributions like $70 million from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson (all of which went to the Republicans) and exceedingly small contributions, some as little as $3 (most of which went to the Democrats), was clearly the most expensive in history. Panel Moderator and veteran TV and print journalist Steven Roberts got the night off to a rousing start with his 1st question - Much of that money was spent on old media like TV. Was that money wasted?

"The money was wasted," Tom Davis (R-VA) said without hesitation. "I think much of it was just put in the trash can." Davis added that overexposure in a swing state like Virginia can actually hurt a candidate. "We saw more of Mitt Romney than we did of Bryce Harper (a sensational rookie on a Washington Nationals team that made the baseball playoffs for the 1st time in 78 years)," Davis said.

Anne Meagher Northup (R-KY) contended that nothing can be more effective than a candidate articulating his or her positions, something she felt GOP candidate Romney failed to do well enough. "Ads can only reiterate those positions and I think the independent ads seldom melded well. An ad must be effective to work," Northup said. She supported her contention by pointing out that she believed the 3 debates did more than all the ads to influence voters.

For the Democratic perspective, Bart Gordon (D-TN) said you needed to examine how the campaigns utilized their money. "There's smart money and there's dumb money," Gordon said. "Obama really had no business winning. Unemployment is the highest since Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the Obama campaign spent wisely."

Albert Wynn (D-MD) concurred. He said that while Romney and his supporters poured millions into ads and robo-calls, the Obama campaign spent funds for election coordinators in key communities across the country. "You get this picture of volunteers running around in sneakers and tennis shoes. But there were a lot of knowledgeable people involved," Wynn said, supporting his contention by pointing out that in Columbus Ohio, Obama workers outnumbered Romney people by 3 to 1.

But Wynn added that he thought the real difference in the election was that Obama's message resonated with more groups of voters - women, blacks, Latinos, gays, and young people. "The difference is the message," Wynn said. "It doesn't matter about the media, it's the underlying message."

Davis somewhat agreed, but said he still believed the Obama campaign was far more effective in using new social media, which in turned reached more people in their 20s and 30s. "In my father's time we did everything in mail. My generation, we did it by phone. For today's younger group, it's the internet," he said.

David Plotz, editor of Slate magazine, said the Obama campaign brilliantly used social media "to create a sense of intimacy and relationship". That fact, coupled with a relentless ground game of registering voters and knocking on doors definitely provided a huge political difference, making the Obama operation a model for current 21st Century national elections.

But Northup argued that the use of modern media like Facebook doesn't matter if the candidate can't deliver. "No matter what Facebook he used, John Kerry (Democratic candidate in 2004) wouldn't have been elected," she said, provoking laughter from the audience. She said that while Obama is a perfect social media candidate, the same can't be said for Romney, who in ways was much more Kerry-esque. "He didn't have a hip side. He should have used dinner table conversations (with his wife, Anne, and their 5 boys). That   could have shown a human side that could have swayed hearts," she contended.

Wynn said he believed the most effective tool the Obama campaign used was finding out information about potential voters (a sophisticated computerized process called data mining). "Today, you can know so much more about your constituents," he said. "You can target your message to a group or even an individual. You can specify to them the thing they are most concerned about or should be concerned about," Wynn said.

Plotz said the converse was equally true. ""You don't want to waste time on someone who isn't going to vote for you," he noted.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In the end, the 4 former Congress members agreed that it came down to story. The majority of Americans were more interested in the Obama narrative than they were the Romney tale. Roberts asked each what they thought was the single, most effective part of the Obama story that led to his victory.
from Wynn
"The most effective story was told by Bill Clinton for Barack Obama. After Clinton spoke at the convention, people said 'Oh, I get it now.' That was the ball game."
from Northup
"I think it was when Obama talked about his growing up as a child and the challenges he faced. And those of his wife.  He really made it seem like the (American) dream came true for them."
from Davis
"He had to go after Romney. He had to savage him. He did a tremendous job. But Romney (also) helped savage himself."
from Gordon
"It's like I said earlier. The most important road in the county is the one that runs in front of your house. Obama was able to micro-target his messages and figure out the one message that was most important for that person. Then, he delivered it."

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