Is there something in our water that makes former Massachusetts politicians so bad at campaigning?
That’s what Suffolk University political marketing expert and Government Professor Ken Cosgrove wondered while recounting some of Mitt Romney’s recent missteps.
Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Romney – all solid politicians at the state level – have each stumbled on the national stage.
Cosgrove is currently teaching his undergraduate students why campaigns falter:
“I make sure my classes learn about political marketing early on because it’s key to understanding modern American politics,” he explains. “Right now, I’m having my students design two different marketing campaigns as class projects. It's easy to say what a candidate or party should be doing but it's harder to have to really make those decisions. They’re also gaining a real sense of how a lot of what they see in the political world is constructed.”
Cosgrove, who spent last year as a visiting Fulbright professor in Ontario, recently shared some presidential campaign observations during a webcast with political staffers at U.S. Embassy offices throughout Canada. Here’s Cosgrove’s advice for students of election 2012 and beyond:
The game has changed – keep up!
“We used to have a 24-hour news cycle in this country,” Cosgrove explains. “Now – with Twitter, especially, and the pace of online newsgathering – it’s more like 24 seconds. If a candidate doesn’t respond nimbly, which is something Romney has struggled with, they can’t control their message.”
Cosgrove cites a recent example:
“Recently, Romney was on Univision talking about what he’d do for the Latino voter. At the same time, Obama’s campaign was tweeting out messages detailing what they’d done for the Latino community during the last four years. It’s a smart use of technology to make their message heard during this moment when Romney is supposed to be in the spotlight.”
Build brand awareness
People often think political campaigns are synonymous with political ads. But Cosgrove calls this approach outmoded. He believes candidates must have a well-defined “brand” that unites all communication. In political branding, as in responsiveness, Cosgrove gives the edge to the Obama campaign:
“Romney’s image is still generic and undefined. Obama has a consistent, dynamic and clear brand. Obama's branding – owning the terms “hope” and “change” in 2008 and “forward” in 2012 – targeting/micro-targeting and use of technology have all been state-of-the-art. They've reversed the tone of the election, making it a referendum on Romney instead of the incumbent president, which is no small accomplishment.”
Don’t discount any segment of the electorate
“Romney seems to be ceding chunks of voters to Obama already,” says Cosgrove. “Just like the National GOP, Romney isn't targeting younger voters effectively. The party's base is narrower than the Democratic one now, and this is a big part of why it is struggling. In order to be a viable national party, they need to grow the base by identifying parts of audiences that are likely to vote for them.”
Cosgrove notes that this more inclusive strategy worked for Ronald Reagan, and that the GOP emphasized it a great deal in the 1980's and 1990's.
In battleground states where every vote counts, ignoring entire groups can be a losing strategy.
As demographics shift, so should communication strategy
The number of Spanish-speaking Americans continues to grow, but neither Romney nor Obama can truly break through the language barrier. Cosgrove points to the success of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose fluency in French allows him to connect with French-Canadian citizens, as a good example for future American politicians:
“The Republican failure in particular to make inroads with Hispanic voters in this campaign is going to hurt them in a number of swing states. It defies logic that at least some people in that demographic shouldn't be more receptive to the Republican message than they seem to be at this point.”
Look for Cosgrove’s next book, forthcoming in 2013, to provide more insight into the ways candidates can and should use political marketing and branding to connect with voters.
Want to learn more about Election 2012? Check out Suffolk’s slate of exciting upcoming political events.