After last week’s Iowa caucuses, some television commentators were surprisingly caught off-guard by Mitt Romney’s hairs-breadth victory over Rick Santorum.
But why the shock? Watching Santorum on the Sunday-morning circuit two weeks ago, I saw him point out that he was the only candidate who hadn’t yet had a chance to run the gauntlet. Romney had held steady with 25% of the vote for six months or so, with Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich all taking turns as the lead contender. Iowa came, and Santorum was up. And why not?
The truth is, any presidential election requires candidates who are both articulate and telegenic. Time will tell whether front-runner Romney fits the bill, but consider Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama. In this year’s Republican field, right-leaning voters aren’t finding that magic combination. So in their effort to test ABM (“Anyone But Mitt”), Republican voters have pinned their hopes to one candidate, then another.
Peter Robinson offered an astute analysis of the Republican candidates’ communication challenges in the Wall Street Journal last week. I chuckled at one comment in particular, referring to Newt Gingrich: “You don't enjoy Mr. Gingrich, exactly. You just can't not listen to him.”
Which brings me to Lesson #1 for this year’s candidates: Just because you’re good on TV, doesn’t mean TV is good for you. Case in point: As Robinson noted, Gingrich makes for great TV, because you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. Just look at the fodder he’s provided for Jon Stewart lately. But every thoughtless comment loses voters and empowers the opposition. On the other end of the spectrum is Mitt Romney. He is the most seasoned candidate and has the best political organization among the Republicans. But how often have you seen him on the talk shows or giving a press conference? Far less often than the other candidates. A strategic choice by a front-runner? Perhaps. It’s clearly a delicate balance.
Lesson #2: Recognize the power of television. This takes us back to 1960, when Richard Nixon famously failed to shave before facing off (pun intended) with John Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate. A sinister-looking 5 o’clock shadow is said to have lost Nixon the race. Michael Dukakis fell into the same trap when he appeared on TV dressed up like a preschooler at Halloween in a military helmet popping out from the top of a tank. (Doesn’t he remind you of the kid in The Force ad from Volkswagen’s last Super Bowl?)
Another anecdote that comes to mind: Back in President Reagan’s day, a major network ran a long television piece during prime time highlighting the President’s supposed hypocrisy with regards to certain health-care legislation for children, by pairing images of Reagan kissing babies with audio about his inapposite policy position. When the producer later followed up with the White House, spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater was effusive in his thanks, pointing out that a paid political ad by the President couldn’t have better served its target. After all, he reportedly said, the piece had been aired during the dinner hour, when most television viewers mute the audio. (Note to candidates: If your ad is critical, don’t show your opponent kissing babies.)
“Look beyond the polls” is Lesson #3. This is the first election cycle in which social media will play a role that goes beyond organizing and galvanizing supporters, perhaps making this election season more like an “American Idol” voting round than any other. Some say that Twitter will be a more accurate predictor of this year’s outcome than any Gallup poll could be. But it’s worth noting also that poll samples are just way too small to be meaningful, and at least one key poll missed Santorum’s rapid gains in the days leading up to the Iowa primary. (We run into similar problems with television, when you think about it ;-). But with the huge amounts of data available in the digital age and software to analyze and leverage it, smart campaigns will be able to target better than ever before.
And whom will they target? Here’s Lesson #4: It’s all about the swing voter. Sounds obvious, but I have to mention it because it resonates so strongly with those of us in television, where major brand advertisers have recently been focusing anew on “swing purchasers.” Doubting the comparison? Consider the apparent taunt via Twitter that Ron Paul addressed to rival Jon Huntsman after the caucuses: “we found your one Iowa voter…you might want to call him and say thanks.” Huntsman was good-humored about the jibe, but it did illuminate an unlikely truth in this campaign -- that victory will depend on whether Huntsman’s “one voter” swings over to Romney’s side or his opponent’s. Voters who are brand-loyal (i.e., Republican), but product-agnostic (i.e., unaligned with a particular candidate) will determine the outcome of this election. Will the GOP rank-and-file “fall in line” or “fall in love?” (Republicans tend to do the former while Democrats the latter.)
Now, onto New Hampshire, where we’ll watch the Republican field play to the conservative wing of the party before the nominee has to race back to the middle for the general election. (Not sure President Obama has the ability to get to the required “middle”.) With $3.2 billion projected to be spent this year on political TV advertising, there is much at stake for all players in the ecosystem. Regardless, it will be good sport for TV. So let the games begin.