Obama the game changer

by May 15, 2013

Obama’s smart campaign and the new normal

The 2012 presidential election was a game changer and will have repercussions for many years to come. It was an exciting, ugly, nail biting contest and highlighted the fault lines of America. The electorate had a taste of things to come with the phoney war in the Republican nomination, followed by the real battle between two very competitive candidates, Obama and Romney. In the real war, Obama demonstrated that he was the grandmaster, his campaign and the major demographic changes in the US electorate have established a new normal. The defeat of the Republicans has highlighted the challenges that party faces. Observers around the world could learn a lot about new techniques in electioneering, notably the use of BIG DATA.

The phoney Republican war and a flawed standard bearer

The Republican nomination process was really a fight among pigmies which while fierce, did not really have a group of viable candidates. Romney faced a pack that would have found it very difficult to seriously challenge Obama. It was partly because of this but also Romney’s far more formidable financial clout that Republicans voted for Romney, a man the conservatives base did not particularly like but realized was the best bet against Obama. The barrage of negative adverts Romney levied against his opponents gave the electorate a taste of the real war. There were mutterings that he had previously taken liberal positions on a range of issues which were anathema to conservatives but chameleon Romney reassured them that he was a “serious conservative” and he was given the benefit of the doubt. This decision would come to haunt many Republicans as Romney moved to the centre when he faced Obama. Romney showed contempt for the electorate by not just flip flopping on issues but also his vacuous statements on two dominant election issues, namely, jobs and the budget deficit. He claimed he would create 12 million jobs but could not say how he would do so. His budget deficit plan, rather, that of his Vice Presidential nominee, Ryan, which he adopted, was denounced as mathematically impossible by reputable organisations, including the Congressional Budget Office. This was particularly the case as Romney claimed he would cut the deficit while reducing taxes and increasing the defense budget. More gaffs were to follow, including a disastrous trip abroad and when he was caught on camera saying he did not care for the 47% of the electorate who did not pay federal taxes.

The real war

The contest between Romney and Obama was exciting, and set records in terms of its ugliness and divisiveness, a battle of two gladiators. The cost, $2.2 billion by both candidates was the most expensive contest in America. Both candidates rejected federal government funding which would have restricted the amount they could raise and spend. An earlier Supreme Court ruling had allowed groups not directly controlled by candidates to raise and spend unlimited funds on behalf of the candidate they support. The result was that Americans, particularly those in swing states, that is states that were not solidly Republican or Democrat, were bombarded with adverts on radio, TV, the internet and telephone. Most of the adverts had negative messages about the opponent. Many of these messages were misleading or outright lies. While both candidates were guilty, independent fact checkers found the Republicans to be the main perpetrators by a significant margin. The tone was gladiatorial, notably during the debates, when Obama and Romney were circling each other as if they were almost about to get into a fist fight. America had never seen such a contest before.

Obama’s smart campaign

Obama won partly because he had a better narrative but also he outgunned Romney, with a far more superior marketing strategy. Ironically, Republicans had belittled him for being a mere “community organiser” but they have come to regret this insult. The icing on the cake, pervasively, was hurricane Sandi, when Obama’s efficient handling of the crisis, for which he was praised by Republican Governor Christie of New Jersey, demonstrated to the American people that they had a credible commander in chief, in stark contrast to the bungling record of the previous Republican President Bush in a similar crisis. It also demolished one of Romney’s key attacks, namely, that Obama was partisan and could not be trusted to take a bi-partisan approach, that is, work with Republicans in Congress, to resolve the huge problems a new president would face.

Early in the campaign, the Obama team did a sterling job of defining Romney as uncaring plutocrat, who did not care for the middle class, avoided paying his fair share of tax and a flip flopper. The Romney camp was therefore, from the start, fighting an uphill battle against this negative backdrop. This image stayed with him, ensuring that Obama led in the polls for most of the contest. And then there was a seismic shift after Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate. After that debate, when Romney gave the impression that he was a credible candidate, abandoning his “severe conservative” position, taking on a new moderate persona, the race became very tight. This blip could however not save Romney from defeat partly because of how Obama had defined Romney early on in the campaign which still resonated among voters but also because of the superior Obama narrative and marketing machine.

Team Obama had a better narrative. The electorate still blamed Bush not Obama for the economic mess he left the President. Obama could cite significant successes, in job growth, manufacturing, exports and other areas. He ended the unnecessary war in Iraq and is ending the war in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden is dead, healthcare reform has given 45 million people access to health care, he ended discrimination against gays in the military and passed legislation ensuring equal pay for women. They realized that more could have been done if he had not faced a hostile Congress, an institution which has record low approval rating. Romney did not really offer a credible or viable alternative on the economy and the deficit. They were scared of the policies Romney offered and polls showed that Obama was more in tune with the aspirations of the middle class.

The Obama team had a far more sophisticated game plan. The team had much more detailed database, management system and ground troops in every state but particularly in the crucial swing states. It had far more offices, volunteers and a better plan in motivating and getting voters to the booth. It made up for the higher Republican budget by being far more efficient. Team Obama booked advertising months ahead which meant that the Romney camp which bought adverts much closer to when they were featured paid far more the same spots. Team Obama had a much more targeted approach relating to swing states and its core support base of minorities, the young, women and blue collar white voters, devising messages specifically aimed at those different market segments. The Republican approach was a more broadly based message. Team Obama had a very effective rapid response unit that rebutted and/or counter-attacked Romney’s messages.

Obama’s superior game plan was particularly crucial in swing states, his firewall, which meant that Romney was unable to make headway in these vital battleground states. They were inundated with Obama adverts and ground troops, with the President’s team putting far more resources into those states. He constantly reminded them that Romney opposed the auto bail out, an industry that employed significant proportion of voters in three of these states. In short, Obama and his management team were far better generals in this election war.

The new normal and challenges for the Republicans

Obama won the popular vote by only a very small margin, 2 percent, but in terms of electoral votes he won by a huge margin, over fifty percent. While Americans were persuaded by the Obama narrative and game plan noted above a crucial factor relates to the changing demographics.

Obama’s team exploited the changing demographics with its excellent market segmentation strategy, identifying groups and targeting messages aimed specifically at them. His strategy paid off handsomely. While Romney won 59% of the white vote, 20 points above Obama’s share, Obama’s share of the vote among African Americans, 93%, Hispanics, 71% and Asians, 73% was enough to give him victory. Obama also won by a significant margin among women, all voters under 45 (Obama won 60% of the votes of people aged 18 to 20 years), single women. This was indeed the problem the Republicans faced. Their scatter gun approach, endemic racism, misogyny, hostile immigration position made them appear as nasty, uncaring and only interested in the tiny elite, social conservatives and the white electorate. During the election statements by Republican candidates and their supporters on race, rape and birth control and abortion turned wide swathes of the electorate against the “nasty party”. Given this backdrop, candidate Romney, a notorious flip flopper could not be relied upon to defend the “victims”, many of whom he did not care for as his “47%” statement to sponsors confirmed. He could not put together the patchwork of voting segments that a candidate needs these days to win a presidential election.

The election in 2012 has established a new normal. Obama’s campaign was the most sophisticated in history in terms of its use of marketing and technological tools. The Republicans came out as Neanderthal as can be seen in the last days of the campaign when Romney was going all over the place using a scatter gun approach. Obama, the “community organiser” had built up a formidable machine in 2008 and further enhanced it this year. He has raised the bar and Republicans would need to up their game to match his level of sophistication. The demographic changes that are taking place means that the Republican Party would need to go through a seismic shift to embrace this change. Another area that Obama has so far not exploited yet but which could have a significant impact is that he can use his machine for heightened participatory democracy. It could be used for example in the budget deficit impasse to pressure Republicans in Congress.

The problem for Republicans is that the party is becoming increasingly white and socially conservative when it needs to be more inclusive, particularly as the proportion of the white vote declines. Increasingly, for candidates to win the Republican nomination as a presidential candidate and for other offices, they have to appeal to their conservative base, adopting policies that do not appeal to moderates and independents. After winning the nomination they would need to shift to more moderate positions to have any chance of winning elections. This was exactly Romney’s strategy when he said he was “severely conservative” to win the Republican nomination. In his battle against Obama when he moved to the centre, he was regarded by the electorate as insincere and a flip flopper. Obama constantly hammered this message, highlighting Romney’s previous positions on the campaign stump. Republicans are indeed in a quandary and in which case moderates may have to form a new party or join the Democrats. A recent forecast gave the Republican Party the maximum of 292 college votes, only 22 votes above the level that they need to win the presidential election. It is very difficult to see how Republicans can get out of this quandary as the social and religious base which hold the reigns are in no mood to give up control. So long as this situation persists, Romney and other Republican candidates have little chance of winning the presidential race.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford