Obama marketing lesson

The Obama campaign changed everything. It proved that new media does work, that people will get involved and that social networks have returned as one of the most powerful forces in politics. Some of us who practice issue advocacy learned a lot from the 2008 campaign and believe the way it was won has fundamentally changed how K Street will have to do business in the Obama era.

First, a shout-out to a couple of pollsters: My fellow columnist, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, has long preached the power of word-of-mouth in politics. He believes, and has the data to prove it, that nothing persuades like personal contact and that campaigns should focus their advertising and field activities on generating that one-to-one communication. Another Democratic pollster, Stan Greenberg, released a study last Friday based on 2,000 post-election interviews conducted on election night and the night afterward. In a report titled “The Extraordinary Campaign,” Greenberg and his team show just how effective Obama was in re-engineering time-tested political tactics.

Anyone who was watching television during the closing weeks of the campaign knows that Obama’s air war was dominant. Even with the Republican National Committee and various independent-expenditure groups attacking Obama on McCain’s behalf, the Republicans were never able to match the reach or the effectiveness of Obama’s television. Nearly seven in 10 voters said they had seen Obama ads compared to 44 percent who could recall a McCain commercial. That kind of voter recall demonstrates the power of the Obama advertising more than just comparing dollars spent and rating points bought. In many battleground states McCain reached parity with Obama in terms of TV dollars in the closing days of the campaign, but the messages voters remembered was not that Obama was “too liberal” and certain “to raise taxes.” On Election Day, in fact, candidate Obama had a nine-point advantage on doing a better job on taxes. Obama got his message of middle-class tax breaks through the clutter.

Message matters.

What also mattered is that the advertising helped drive voters to Obama’s website. Among voters under 40 years of age, roughly 36 percent visited the Obama website, compared to just 14 percent who went to McCain’s. (In Greenberg’s polling, he found going to a website was one of the strongest predictors of how people would vote.)

Once getting them there, the Obama campaign established a relationship with visitors. Voters received regular messages from the campaign, were recruited to take action and passed the Obama message along to friends and neighbors — delivering one-to-one communications to a quarter of all voters and 41 percent of those who eventually voted for Obama.

So what does this all mean to those who advocate for public policy? It means you had better start building public support for your positions if you want to prevail.  

President-elect Obama has a database of some 10 million names and e-mail addresses, and those who built it have made clear they’ll activate that army to support the new president. MoveOn.org is already preparing its supporters to advocate for progressive policies. Groups like Divided We Fail, Healthcare for America Now! and the American Medical Association are already running television and online campaigns to advocate for healthcare reform.

A labor union coalition is advertising to educate Americans about “card-check” as a way to make joining unions easier. Two weeks ago only a handful knew what card check was; now it makes television news as a major issue. Al Gore’s “We” campaign has an aggressive online and television campaign running to advocate for clean energy.

And we’re still two months from Inauguration Day.

Not all of these campaigns will succeed, because not all are well-thought-out or well-executed. (I had to watch the card-check ads four times to get the message, and I already knew what they were trying to say.) But all these efforts provide a glimpse of what it is going to take to push public policy in the future. There will always be a role for traditional lobbyists, and personal relationships on Capitol Hill will always be important. But advocates who ignore the power of mass media and new media will soon learn the game has changed. Barack Obama’s campaign wakened a sleeping giant — the American voter. They made history on Nov. 4 and now they are going to make public policy. Engage them and you can win. Ignore them and you will likely lose.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com