Reflections On Bread, Butter, And Partisanship

Michael Steele, Former Chairman, RNC, and Alex Weprin, Editor, Digital News Daily, MediaPost

Michael: TV has a lot of pressure from the cable and digital world. There are buckets, biggest one for 60 years has been the thing that we know as the box, TV. NBC, CBS, ABC. A lot of politics catered to the evening news programs. In many respects, still the case. What has changed and continues to change the process is the whole other boxes, where you have more flexibility. It’s around the clock. When I ran for Senate in 2006, we did a number of commercials, put on times in the morning (puppy ad). You could be strategic, but locked in to traditional model.

With cable, much more flexibility. When you look at it from a dollar perspective, if I’m a candidate running for city council or county council and I want to run some ads on local TV, if I’m in this market, I gotta pay the DC rate but I’m running in parts of Virginia or eastern shore. Need to find other ways to get message out there: digital, cable. 

Alex: How to manage new media ecosystem?

Michael: Your comms people want to spend as much as possible, political director wants the money on the ground, best voice is the candidate at a subway stop, internal battles. Try to find best way to split the comms baby to get enough juice from one that it feeds the other. If I’m doing enough TV work, when I go to the malls, I get some benefit. Going out to meet public, to say hello, ad has a bigger impact. Strategy is more interesting unless committed to spending dollars on network TV. Public plays on FB, Twitter, where to pick and choose. 

Alex: ROI factor? TV expensive but wide reaching.

Michael: Depends on campaign. Some focus less on network side, do more social media. Look at candidates who got into Congress, what they are doing. AOC, FB live. Beto and others sitting in dentist’s chair. It’s exciting from the standpoint that you are reaching a lot of people in an unconventional way. Can’t do on TV, bring crew into dentist’s office, put it on TV at 7:30 at night. ROI much better on digital space because you have control, flexibility and your cost is minimum. ROI is through the roof. Repetitive.

Alex: Social media. How do you approach this, Trump is an avid Twitter user, AOC. How to approach these platforms?

Michael: Some has to do with your mindset. Certain age. If it’s foreign to you, less inclined. Some candidates happier printing a flyer, TV ad. Others, and this is the future, do aggressive push into digital space. It covers everything. It is all and then some. Beauty is the creativity, where you find space to do something that is less conventional. It’s all about first impressions. If goal is to really land with the voter, I can find various way to do so. Lot of campaigns, knowing who voter is, a lot of the work is done in identifying what the voters like and tailoring my connection to you to that space. Take a lot of consumer data, GOP developed expertise in micro targeting in the ‘90s. 

We know a lot about this person, where she lives, goes to church or doesn’t. Now, with all the things you’ve done in your network, you like to shop here, eat this kind of pizza, that kind of consumer data is folded into the political space. Dynamic. Now I can target you to the point that you are pro-life environmentalist who likes some form of gun control. He’s pro-choice, not so into environment. Can tailor. Take that messaging I’m directing to you through content on your phone, mailers, how to take that and develop message that they’re both looking at the same time and don’t feel isolated.

Alex: Data is the most important topic. How much more data do we have today than before. How to manage all that data>?

Michael: Ask the Russians, they seem to have a clue. You have these bodies that once were not responsible for this information now collecting and storing it. Security, privacy issues we’ve just begun to tap into what that may mean. How it impacts dollars, raised and spent, how I access that information. Frustrating parts is that the political organs collect all this information and sell it back to parties. Wait, you’re selling us info on our own people! New doors being opened. Ease to access, manipulate. Positives and negatives to be worked out over time. Back in 1990s, microtargeting, how dare you invadd privacy but it was all public stuff. Now, it’s not necessarily public information that you like pizza with weird toppings. 

Alex: Risk of data being pulled back a bit?

Michael: Absolutely. As consumers become more sensitive to how exposed they are, it’s gonna have an impact, they’ll want some control of their privacy. 

Alex: 2018 campaign, lot of Democratic messaging is healthcare. How should campaigns approach local level issues?

Michael: Always a challenge. If I’m running for dog catcher, now I’m talking about World Bank? In political space, tensions build up around issues, candidates, states. Depends on dynamic. Have a way of shaping how you talk about your race, issues. Running for comptroller in Maryland in 1998, I’m at a debate, Republicans had won the House, lost the House, tensions with Clinton administration. Dem v Rep. First question is why are you pro-life? “Unless fetus pays taxes, this is not relevant.” What it said was that issue was roiling nationally, bled into a local campaign. 

2018 was different, expertly executed by Democrats. Kept races very local. Started long before. In 2017, special elections, off-year elections. Candidates winning by running on local issues. Virginia race, Democrat was trans. Republican hard right conservative. He ran his campaign on national issues related to LGBTQ community, running against this individual’s sexuality. She ran on putting stoplights, creating traffic patterns. She won. She spoke to the issues important to those people. So healthcare became one of those issues. Every Democrat personalized the issue. 

National party stayed out of the way. No top-down, heavy message. 

Alex: How do you think about these different parts of the media to talk about policy?

Michael: The podcast space is exploding. The reason is, one, freedom. You can talk about a range of topics. The other is convenience. You can do it whenever. The TV set-up is great but it’s also limiting. If I’m on “Hardball,” “Morning Joe,” you’re life is boiled down to six-minute segments. Can be limiting. Podcast you can do that. Check out “Man of Steele.” Lot of fun. I wanted to come in and tell guests the idea is I’m not going to ask questions. Let’s have a conversation. At a table having drinks and just talking about stuff. What is interesting is, they’re waiting for you to ask them a question. We get kind of set into this rote behavior. This medium is free-form. Might throw some music underneath the conversation. Turned music down as low as we could and it’s teaching me how people listen. If they were at a club, the music wouldn’t bother them. But in a podcast, all they want to hear is the voice. I leave the music in because it’s cool. Slowly, the audience is coming along to see music doesn’t bother them. That’s the process.

In politics, that’s all about how you train your voter, your viewer to accept something outside what they’re used to. 

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications