Election 2012 – Advocacy Lessons from the Campaign Trail
Posted on May 31, 2012
While most Americans pay little attention to the daily horserace of a presidential election, it’s nearly impossible in Washington not get drawn into the constant analysis of which strategies or tactics employed by the campaigns win the day. This makes Presidential election years a great learning lab for what works and what doesn’t in advocacy campaigns.
This week I moderated a panel with three journalists and fellow Duke alumni who have front row seats to the advocacy efforts of the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney camps. Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour, Rich Oppel of the New York Times and Naureen Kahn of National Journal shared insights on how the two parties are employing messages, messengers, and various communications mediums to accomplish their goals. The brief discussion offered a number of early lessons from the 2012 campaign.
All three reporters addressed the impact of social media – both as it is used by the campaigns as well as by the media in coverage of the campaigns. Woodruff, a self-professed Twitterer, gave Democrats the early lead (dating back to 2008) on using social networks. Obama’s first presidential run has been noted for its effective use of the Internet and online communities for building grassroots support, raising funds and messaging directly to voters often circumventing traditional media who have traditionally been the gatekeepers for much of the public information about candidates. But, Woodruff noted, the extraordinarily well-financed Republican machine has just about caught up in social media prowess and is close to leveling the playing field in the online race.
Lesson 1: Social media is a powerful tool and campaigns must direct significant resources to understanding and employing that power. The competition is never far behind.
Oppel (a non-Twitterer) and Kahn, both of whom traveled with early Republican candidates in the primary race, attested to the speed with which social media affected the depth of reporting on campaign activities. In order to keep up with, if not ahead of, competitive media outlets and to satisfy content hungry editors back home; traditional reporters have begun to rely on this medium. The expediency required to push out blogs and Tweets, the reporters agreed, creates a risk of over simplification of complex issues (such as a candidate’s stand on specific issues) and makes it challenging to fully fact check every single campaign or candidate claim. But, they also agreed, there are plenty of news outlets and reporters that do ultimately unearth skeletons and points of weakness, citing Herman Cain and Rick Perry’s failed candidacies as proof.
Lesson 2: Yes, social media is a powerful tool, but do not underestimate the power of the traditional media to eventually look deeper than 140 characters and potentially expose the flaws.
There was a general agreement among the three that neither the Obama nor the Romney campaigns have effectively landed on a set of compelling messages for voters. There are still plenty of external factors in play from the European currency crisis to the price of oil coming out of the Middle East that could impact voter sentiment.
Lesson 3: A campaign must be cognizant of and sensitive to the environment in which target audiences are receiving the messages.
Woodruff reminded the audience that voting is inherently a very personal action where perceptions of character, values and leadership abilities are equally important to positions on the issues.
Lesson 4: A campaign message may be impactful, but it does little good if the target audience doesn’t feel a connection to or affinity for the messenger.
Although tracking the daily “who’s up and who’s down” can get tedious, those of us in the business of managing advocacy campaigns will be watching closely for more lessons like these in the final six months of the 2012 presidential race.