Five Thirty Eight and Presidential Busts

On the heels of Scott Walker’s good week, ESPN’s political blog notes – accurately – that early success in political primaries is sometimes temporary. Likable – and well-liked – candidates (like Walker) don’t always make it to the nomination. One of the summaries stands out. Consider their obituary of Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 bid:

Giuliani, who earned the moniker “America’s mayor” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, may be the biggest dud on this list. He had a better net favorable rating in early 2007 than every nonincumbent presidential nominee since 1980 except for George W. Bush. Once Republican voters found out how moderate Giuliani was on many issues, the jig was up. Giuliani never came close to winning a single primary.

The conclusion of the jig went beyond just Giuliani’s moderate viewpoints. The campaign’s delegate counting strategy put all the eggs in late primary states. More damning was the grassroots strategy – or rather, the lack of one. The campaign eschewed the retail organizing so necessary for victories in places like New Hampshire and Iowa. After being shut out of early primaries, Team Giuliani desperately needed to win the Florida primary to put some delegates on the scoreboard. America’s mayor finished third.

Notable in its omission is the candidacy of Ted Kennedy in 1980. Kennedy probably didn’t have enough pre-election juice to register in Five Thirty Eight’s rankings, but his failed candidacy offers some equally valuable lessons as the others: having a coherent message is the critical first step. A good, smart, campaign structure is vital as well, but its success flows from that basic message. After all, if you can’t articulate why you’re in the race, you can’t expect your volunteers to have much luck convincing voters to be on your side.

Giuliani and Kennedy how critical both elements are to winning any political race – together, and almost three decades apart.

Why do I hate Michelle Malkin’s dancing so much?

After Michelle Obama’s homage to suburban Mom dances on Jimmy Fallon on Friday night, Michelle Malkin responded with this on Sunday.  You don’t have to watch it, because for the most part it’s painful:

Malkin’s response time is great perfect – her video was up before the original had a chance at Monday morning virality (which was a lock because it was actually kind of funny).  That’s good, but it’s where the good stops; Malkin’s video is kind of lame.

[Note: It’s still better than my video, which is linked here.  Oh, that’s right, I didn’t make a video.  Duly noted.  Back to the cheap shots…]

The problem largely stems from the word “liberal” in Malkin’s title.  While factually accurate, it raises the immediate flag that this is speaking only to a political audience, the kind that will descend on the National Harbor for CPAC in just a few weeks.  There’s nothing wrong with rallying the troops, but Malkin can probably do better.

“Better” might be a mock video response that substitutes the First Lady for the President himself, bringing Michelle Obama’s decidedly non-political and self-deprecating bit into contrast with her hyper-political, self-aggrandizing husband.  It would definitely drop the political labels, focusing more on DC versus regular voters, rather than conservatives versus liberals.  And it would have to emphasize humor more than scoring week debate points, because in videos like this funny is most important.

Malkin tallied over 65,000 views at press time.  That’s impressive, but if her audience wasn’t so narrow, she might have tripled that.  There’s nothing wrong with rallying the troops, but real advancement of center-right ideas isn’t going to come from overtly political videos that preach to the choir.

[Still better than my video.]

Obama’s press strategy is nefarious and manipulative – copy it!

Politico greeted night owls and early risers to a fantastic article about the White House press strategy.  The tenets have been the same for every President, controlling the President’s public image through strategic use of information – but no President has had the options that Barack Obama has.

Since great minds steal, anyone seeking to copy the Obama team’s strategy should consider three major points:

1. News outlets are no longer the gatekeepers for mass media exposure.

White House photographers have been commonplace in the past few decades; Politico notes that the current White House has made those photographs ubiquitous on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  That these channels exist allow the President to go over the media’s head, but without mass media branding they wouldn’t work as well.

Ronald Reagan and his predecessors faced three networks and a handful of national newspapers.  Bill Clinton presided over the rise of cable news networks, as MSNBC and Fox joined CNN to increase scrutiny on the sturm and drang of partisan politics; online media helped increase that during George W. Bush’s administration.

Big News is now the victim of its own success.  There’s now a general awareness of political comings and goings, enough that political topics spill into entertainment shows.  And think about all the channels on your TV dial today.  Quasi-news shows – like The Daily Show, The View, and the Today Show – now allow politicians to maintain visibility without getting asked hard questions.  President Obama will have plenty of eyeballs on him when he fills out his NCAA brackets this year, but ESPN’s Stuart Scott probably won’t ask him any pointed questions about Benghazi or gun control.

(Sidebar: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Obama did run into a tough line of questioning on ESPN of all places?  “So you like Duke to come out of the South Region.  What did you think was going to come out of the south when you shipped those guns to Mexico?”)

2.  Brand matters

This visibility serves to underscore a certain identity.  Visibility in and of itself is one thing, but carefully selecting the outlet where you’re seen helps create a message.

Obama wants voter to identify with him personally, so sharing his love for sports on ESPN helps.  Brief interviews to network anchors, fluff interviews on The View, and vague calls to action in the State of the Union all serve to underscore that he’s in control, but not so wonkish that he would be unapproachable.

Obama is able to pull this strategy off now because he is the President, has had two national campaigns, and is a known personality to most Americans.  During his 2008 primary campaign, he had to create that interest by launching a campaign that looked and felt different from traditional campaigns – from the Pepsi-ish logo to the embracing of supporter-created materials.  Sarah Palin tried to eschew the “lamestream media” in favor of communication via Facebook post – but her story was already written for her when she abruptly resigned as governor.  Her branding efforts were far more traditionally political, so they predictably flopped when she tried to use non-traditional outlets to reinforce them.

Palin’s attempt to bypass the media is a good example of how a clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to mimic Obama’s White House is doing can backfire.  If you’re running for dog catcher and there’s no demand for media accessibility, some of these won’t work; however if you’re the person everyone wants to interview, you can call some of the shots.

3. Working harder and smarter trumps media bias.

For decades – decades! – Republicans have groused about media bias.  They’ll point to surveys that show reporters tend to vote Democrat, and they’ll moan that no Republican will get the same treatment as Obama.

There will always be folks like Chris Matthews who fall in love with candidates like Obama and worship them with an illogical fervor that gives cult followers a run for their money.   But the creation of good coverage by the Obama Administration is more the result of meticulous work than a happy accident of reporter preference.  The communications team knows where the President needs to be seen and how to make the most out of each channel they use.  Backed with the currency of access to the White House, they put themselves in a position to write the rules of engagement – and aren’t shy about doing so.

Will [INSERT GOP CANDIDATE HERE] be able to create a carbon copy in 2016?  Probably not in terms of outcome.  But in terms of overall attitude, strategies, and tactics, a lot of what the Obama Team does is worth swiping.

Be vewy quiet; the FCC is hunting wabbit ears

Over the weekend, Outside the Beltway had an excellent critique of a New York Times op-ed from Helen Rubenstein, who was suddenly upset that she couldn’t siphon internet from her neighbors.  Rubenstein is a Brooklyn college professor (thankfully of writing and not ethics), and apparently feels that she should get a service for free that other suckers pay hundreds each year for; OTB rightly calls her out for her self-centered attitude.

Buried in her complaint letter to no one in particular, though, is a hint that his is more than simply an op-ed from a spoiled academic who demands everything for free:

In an ideal world, the Internet would be universally available to anyone able to receive it. Promisingly, the Federal Communications Commission in September announced that it would open up unused analog airwaves for high-speed public wireless use, which could lead to gratis hotspots spreading across cities and through many rural areas.

In 2011, there may be similar announcements to the one Rubenstein references.  The Obama FCC makes no secret that they like the idea of pushing broadcasters off the airwaves to make sure there’s more room for the internet.  Their vision of the future would keep traditional TV stations on cable, but would limit their ability to broadcast over the air.  (If you don’t use rabbit ears, you might not notice; if you do use rabbit ears, it would be time to call Comcast.)  Wireless internet providers and cable companies would win; traditional over-the-air broadcasters would lose.

The sales pitch to the consumers will likely be similar in tone to Rubenstein’s op-ed: Wouldn’t you love for the internet to be everywhere, like TV is now?

Notably, the FCC’s goal of replacing over-the-air TV signals with internet signals isn’t due to a lack of available bandwidth, but because the segments used by television is the prime segment of the broadcast spectrum (or, as a former FCC official once described it to me, the broadcasting equivalent of “beachfront property”).

This is a Washington, D.C. policy battle where a five-member panel will determine winners and losers.  Voters can expect both sides trying to drag them in – and whether or not she was recruited by the proponents of re-allocation to pen her op-ed last week, Professor Rubenstein has kicked off the fun.

(Disclosure: I previously worked at a public affairs firm that represented the National Association of Broadcasters – who, as you might expect, were and are very concerned about this issue.  I don’t work for that firm anymore and NAB is not a current client. Sure, I sympathize with them… but they haven’t paid me to do so.)

An extended break

Since I’ll be away for a couple of weeks, here are some of what pass for greatest hits when you run a two-bit nickel and dime blog:

3 Up: Nancy Pelosi, the Yankees, and GOP messages

Joel Sherman – who, despite growing up a Cincinnati Reds fan, does a better job than anyone of giving a voice to New York baseball – called out Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio in his daily blog for Our Nation’s Newspaper of Record.

Attanasio, who is trying to lock up franchise cornerstone Prince Fielder to a long-term contract,  complained that the Yankees spent a lot of money to pay their players. Sherman rightly observes that Attanasio uses the Yankees as a convenient straw man, much like a politician devoid of a message:

Look, I get it, we live in talk-radio world now. If you are failing your constituency then don’t take any personal responsibility just demonize an easy bogeyman. The Democrats do it to the Republicans, the Republicans do it to the Democrats, and in baseball, when you have no other answers blame the Yankees.  …[P]ulling the Yankees into the Fielder discussion is either the act of a lazy mind or the act of an owner who wants to rile up his fan base so nobody notices his own failings.

At TechRepublican, Wesley Donahue makes a similar case against the “Fire Nancy Pelosi” messaging of many Republicans:

Last week I went to a “Listen and Learn” event in Charleston with S.C. Republican Party chairwoman Karen Floyd. What I heard was exactly what I’m hearing through emails and blog comments to all my clients. People want more than “No.” They want alternative plans.

Both baseball teams and politicians rely on a base of people whose support isn’t entirely rational.  In politics, Candidates like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama with pleasant personalities are able to gloss over policy differences.  Sports fans will change their behavior to avoid jinxing their team.*

But in neither case is affection blind.  The most diehard sports fans can endure losing seasons, if there’s some reason to hope their favorite team can either build a winner or at least be competitive (Redskins fans understand this, especially this week).  But fans bases – and voters – lose interest when teams are stuck in the mud and going nowhere.

Nancy Pelosi and the Yankees are both easy targets.  That doesn’t make them good long-term targets, though.

*Fun story: during the baseball playoffs last year, I texted disparaging, negative comments about the Yankees to both of my brothers during the games; each time I did, the Yankees came back to win.  I even sent a text when one of my brothers was sitting in the same room, watching Game 3 of the World Series with me.  My phone should have been named World Series MVP.

Sadly, the tactic proved ineffective for the New York Giants.